Review of The Martian by Andy Weir

February 2, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

The Martian by Andy WeirThe Martian
By Andy Weir; Narrated by R. C. Bray
Publisher: Podium Publishing (on Audible)
Publication Date: March 2013
[UNABRIDGED] – 10 hours, 28 minutes

Themes: / Mars / NASA / survival /

Publisher summary:

I’m pretty much f**ked.

That’s my considered opinion.

F**ked.

Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare. I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe 100 years from now. For the record… I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say “Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.” And it’ll be right, probably. Cause I’ll surely die here. Just not on Sol 6 when everyone thinks I did. Let’s see…where do I begin?

This book should be subtitled: Keep It Together. Work the Problem.

Astronaut Mark Watney is marooned on Mars after a freak dust storm literally blows him away from his crewmates. Thinking he’s dead, the mission is scrubbed and the rest of the crew head back to Earth. Mark hopes to survive until the next NASA mission to Mars in four years.

Most of The Martian consists of Mark’s log entries which read like a MacGyver episode. He keeps as lighthearted a mood as possible while recording the details of how he is attempting to grow food, find water, and so forth. It is this lighthearted element which helps keep this from being merely a manual of “how to survive on Mars.” For example, Mark’s selection of entertainment from among the things left behind by his crewmates yields the complete series for Three’s Company. His occasional comments on the series afterwards made me laugh out loud.

Fairly early in the book, NASA’s side of the story begins being interwoven with Mark’s struggle for survival. Since Apollo 13 is one of my favorite movies, the comparison is inevitable and irresistible. NASA must juggle PR, competing agencies, rescue plans and more … while we see Mark doggedly surmount one obstacle after another. It is a welcome element because an entire book of Mark’s survival log was going to need some sort of additional depth to make it interesting.

Although I always felt fairly sure that Mark would survive, as the end of the book loomed near I got increasingly tense. What if these were his “found posthumously” logs? The author kept the tension up to the very end.

And at the end? I’m not ashamed to admit it. I cried.

Tears of joy? Tears of sorrow? Read the book and find out.

Or listen to it as I did. Narrator R.C. Bray did a good job of conveying Mark’s sense of humor and absorption in problem solving and survival. He also was good at the various accents of the international cast comprising the rest of the crew and NASA. He had a tendency to read straight storytelling as if it were a computer manual or something else that just needed a brisk run down.

The main thing a bit at fault was Bray’s German accent, which I kept mistaking for a Mexican or Indian accent. Those don’t seem as if they should be that interchangeable do they? My point exactly. However, I always knew who was speaking, I felt emotions as they came across, and it was a good enough narrating job. Not enough to make me look for other books in order to hear his narrations, but good enough.

This novel is not a short story and I felt it would have benefitted from more characterization. Yes, we get to know Mark Watney and, to a lesser degree, his crewmates and the NASA crew. However, to hear Mark’s story for so many days (sols) and get to know so little about him during that time … well, after a while it got a little boring, aside from the new problems to be solved or emergencies from which to recover.

We also got occasional forays into NASA and the spaceship crew, but more about Mark would have enriched the story. It didn’t have to be soul-baring and I realize he was writing a log, but after several hundred days some personalization would have crept in, one would think.

Anyway, that is not a huge factor because I enjoyed the story. But I was not surprised to see that the author is a computer programmer and it did cost the book a star.

Posted by Julie D.

Review of Energized by Edward M. Lerner

November 18, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Energized by Edward M. LernerEnergized
By Edward M. Lerner; Read by Grover Gardner
Length: 10.5 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Published: 2012
ISBN: 1470813033
Themes: / Science! / satellites / engineers / NASA / terrorists / oil / energy / space / thriller /

The SFFaudio crew pegged me to read this book because the description says that one of the main characters is a NASA engineer. I always think it’s funny when people specify “NASA” engineer. It’s like on TV shows when you see people working near the space shuttle, they’re all wearing NASA hats. Nobody does that. The description could just as easily said “aerospace engineer” and the meaning would be the same…but less sexy, somehow. I admit, I was weary of reading this one at first. My experience with people who write about “NASA engineers” is that they have no idea what they’re talking about excepting cursory research. I’m happy to report that Edward M. Lerner does know what he’s talking about with regards to the space and satellite stuff (looking at his bio, it’s no surprise). That said, I went into this thinking it was going to be a science fiction book. It’s much more a mystery/thriller with science fiction elements. It’s as much “science fiction” as Daemon is (which is to say, not much).

In the interest of full disclosure, it’s probably worth mentioning that I am currently employed by a company that (among other things) designs and builds satellites, both for the government and the commercial sector. I currently work on the commercial side of things and have never worked on a NASA contract. There are definite holes and inaccuracies with the science and engineering in this book. But most people won’t recognize them, and they don’t impact the overall enjoyment of the story.

That disclaimer done with, Energized was pretty entertaining. Set in the near-future United States, the world has gone through a “crude-tastrophe” and the price of oil has skyrocketed to the tune of $20+/gallon to fill up a car. There is a fixed market, controlled mostly by Russian interests, for oil, so naturally the US explores alternate energy sources. Unfortunately, Rome wasn’t built in a day and it’s virtually impossible to produce enough energy via alternate sources overnight. NASA has been working on a large-scale satellite that can beam solar energy to earth from space.

The first third of the book (maybe closer to the first half) deals with the public (and private sector) reactions to this kind of a satellite and introduces the reader (listener?) to the concept and its risks. Admittedly, this section could have been shorter without sacrificing much of the story; it did seem to drag on a bit.

The second section of the book introduces the “thriller” aspect. As anybody in the aerospace industry is aware, the stuff built “for the powers of good” in/for space can usually be used to do evil. Sure enough, terrorists find a way to take over the satellite and use its harnessed energy to destroy ground-based and air-based targets. As is typical for thrillers, there are some good guys in the area, capable of stopping the terrorists. In this case it’s Marcus Judson, NASA engineer, one of the lead consultants for the power satellite project, along with some of his colleagues. Yet again, this section seemed overly long and drawn out.

However, the length of the first two sections may only seem long in relation to the final section–the part where the final “battle” occurs and either good or evil triumphs. This part felt a bit rushed, comparatively. In retrospect, I think it was probably the right length and that the other two parts were just a bit too long. I won’t spoil it for you, but the final “battle” involves maneuvering (literally and metaphorically) on the ground and on the 2 mile-on-a-side power satellite. It stretches the belief but still left me interested and wanting to listen to see what happened next.

As I stated previously, the book was enjoyable. It was a bit far-fetched but not so far-fetched as to be completely unbelievable. The science fiction elements are there and create an atypical setting for most mystery/thriller type books, and I’d recommend this to anybody that enjoys the mystery/thriller genre.

Grover Gardner is one of my favorite narrators and he shines in this type of book. He also narrates the Andy Carpenter books, another mystery/thriller series, so it feels natural for him to read Energized. The only “weirdness” I had is that the Andy Carpenter books have a character named Marcus as well, so hearing of two very different “Marcus” characters read by the same narrator was a bit jarring at times.

All in all, this is a popcorn-type book, easily consumed and digested. It does have its flaws (with the technical side of things as well as story length), but they’re not so big as to ruin the fun. If you’re in the market for a hard science fiction book with far-reaching themes, this isn’t the book for you. But if you’re in the mood for a thriller with science fiction elements, you’ll probably enjoy Energized well enough.

Review by terpkristin.

Review of Callahan’s Key by Spider Robinson

November 29, 2004 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

Callahan's Key by Spider RobinsonCallahan’s Key
By Spider Robinson; Read by Barrett Whitener
9 Cassettes – Approx 12.5 Hours
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: 2003
ISBN: 0786125519
Themes: / Science Fiction / Humor / Callahan’s Place / Florida / Nikola Tesla / Robert A. Heinlein / NASA /

The universe is in desperate peril. Due to a cluster of freakish phenomena, the United States’ own defense system has become a perfect doomsday machine, threatening the entire universe. And only one man can save everything-as-we-know-it from annihilation. Unfortunately, he’s not available. So the job falls instead to bar owner Jake Stonebender, his wife, Zoey, and superintelligent toddler, Erin. Not to mention two dozen busloads of ex-hippies and freaks, Robert Heinlein’s wandering cat, a whorehouse parrot, and misunderstood genius-inventor Nikola Tesla, who is in fact alive and well.

Set in 1989, though published and written in 2001, Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s Key is a mighty funny tale. But that is not a shocker. Nobody except Douglas Adams does science fiction humor better than Spider Robinson. But what was a shock is that novel makes any sense at all. With a cast of literally dozens of speaking characters, the only thing that keeps the lunatic asylum of a novel from going completely off the rails is the first person perspective. Well mostly that… well, actually that and some sober thoughts from former Vice President of the United States Dan Quayle. Each chapter begins with a real quote from Dan Quayle! But he’s not the focus of this tale, not at all. Instead, something is about to go wrong with a super secret death ray launched by Space Shuttle, which is under the supervision of Dan Quayle, though he isn’t actually mentioned in the book. Anyway, somebody has to stop this death ray before it goes off and destroys the universe. Thankfully, Jake Stonebender, our perspective protagonist has saved the world a number of times. It’s just par for the course when he’s asked to do it again by Nikola Tesla, who, thank you very much, is alive and well and has become a time traveler. Back in 1989 though, Jake, his bulletproof family, and his crew of whacked out hippies and mad scientist customers decide to move south to Florida’s Key West… to ah… get a better handle on the job. Needless to say they fit right in.

I had a lot of fun spending some time with these characters. If you’ve read a Callahan yarn in the past you’ll be pleased to hear that all the old gang present again. If you’re a new to Robinson’s long running comic novel series you may do better to start with The Callahan Chronicals (also from Blackstone Audio). In this one though, Robinson not only references Robert Heinlein – with an uncanny channeling of his writing style – he also re-introduces us to Pixel, Heinlein’s cat and the eponymous Cat Who Walked Through Walls! Along the way we get to visit the very real, (actually fictional), dockside home of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee and numerous other side adventures. By the time the actual plot gets steaming into full swing I had almost forgotten that novels are supposed to have them. But that is okay. Plot isn’t really all that important to this novel’s experience, so I was actually a little disappointed that they had to even discuss it. Barrett Whitener is just terrific at voicing Jake Stonebender and his crazy friends. It sounded like he was having a blast performing it too. Nearly every minute or so of the novel’s production a groaner pun or a ridiculous situation had me smiling or wincing – and sometimes painfully at the same time. So if you’re in the mood for an ultra-zany audiobook reach no farther than Callahan’s Key. And tell them Nikola Tesla sent you, because he might not really be dead.

Posted by Jesse Willis