Saturday, December 19, 2015

Book Review: "The Martian" by Andy Weir

The Martian (2014)
Andy Weir (1972)

369 pages

Left for dead on Mars by his crew-mates during a sandstorm that leads to an emergency evacuation, Mark Watney must find ways to survive on his own --- first moment-to-moment, then day-to-day. As he quickly adjusts to his shocking predicament, Watney explores ways to convert the equipment and habitat the crew had been using on Mars for their scientific mission into an oasis of survival in the barren and unforgiving Martian environment. Finally achieving some stability in his new, if highly circumscribed, world, he then turns his abilities to support the seemingly far-fetched hope of rescue.

Software engineer and first time author Andy Weir’s The Martian plays out like an extended episode of the old TV series MacGyver, as Watney demonstrates a keen ingenuity and resourcefulness in marshaling what tools he has available to survive both the sudden emergencies and the longer-term risks that threaten him. His education as a botanist helps him overcome what is perhaps his most fundamental problem --- expanding his food supply sufficiently to improve his chance of rescue. But it is his broader knowledge of science and engineering, and his ability to quickly engage that knowledge to his advantage that ultimately keeps him alive.

From a science-engineering-geek point of view, Weir’s story provides a fascinating series of challenges for Watney to solve, each reportedly fairly true to life in both their likelihood and the solutions he finds to address them. That very feature of the story, however, threatens at times to make the plot a bit monotonous, because the reader basically follows Watney from one emergency to the next for the length of the story --- he’s alone on Mars, after all, there is little else for him to do but fight to stay alive. Weir gives Watney a smart-ass manner, though, which both helps him psychologically to carry on in the face of the unrelenting tension of his situation, and provides the reader with some comic relief from what becomes otherwise a steady diet of engineering problem solving.

Weir builds much of the story around Watney’s log entries, though a part of it also takes place back on earth and in space, as a rescue attempt is eventually mounted. He captures well the varied voices of the scientists, technicians and astronauts that work to find ways to help Watney --- some thoughtful, some introverted, some just plain nerds.  He touches also on the political and social aspects of the situation: even as the costs mount, most people cannot help but support whatever efforts are necessary to try and bring back this one man.

For those who enjoy the science part of science fiction, The Martian provides a novel-full. But the action-adventure thrills are there too, as we root for Watney to find yet one more way to keep himself alive.

Other reviews / information:
I haven’t seen it yet, but a movie of the book has recently been released, starring Matt Damon.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Book Review: "Submission" by Michel Houellebecq

Submission (2015)
Michel Houellebecq (1956)

246 pages

The on-going conflicts between Western and Muslim societies have been characterized by some as a “clash of civilizations”. Though the most visible evidence for such a viewpoint has been a series of dramatic terror attacks and protracted wars, such violence tends to overshadow the unavoidable and no less important cultural impacts these two fundamentally different civilizations have had on one another, and the cultural changes that have occurred as a result. In his novel Submission (French, Sumission), French author Michel Houellebecq imagines a France in which liberal democratic values have led to a debilitating cultural malaise, leaving French society susceptible to being deeply and radically altered by just such outside influences.

The story opens in the spring of the year 2022, on the eve of national elections in France. The two principal centrist parties --- the Social Democrats on the left, and the Union for a Popular Movement (renamed since publication The Republicans) on the right --- find their dominant position in French politics deteriorating, as increasing street violence in the big cities and economic stagnation throughout the country drive support both to the far-right National Front party, and, critically, to the nascent, but rapidly growing Muslim Brotherhood party. The Brotherhood is
careful to take a moderate line. It soft-pedaled its support of the Palestinians and kept up good relations with the Jewish religious authorities. As with Muslim Brotherhood parties in the Arab world … the real political action was carried out through a network of youth groups, cultural institutions and charities. In a country gripped by ever more widespread unemployment, the strategy broadened the Brotherhood’s reach far beyond strictly observant Muslims. Its rise was nothing short of meteoric. (39)
When the subsequent election sets the stage for a run-off between the National Front and the Muslim Brotherhood, the two centrist parties suddenly find themselves on the outside looking in, and must decide to whom to throw their support in a coalition government.

These events play out through the eyes of our narrator, François, a professor of French Literature in Paris who, as a forty-four year old bachelor, finds himself increasingly pre-occupied by oppressive thoughts about encroaching middle age. Though he manages to seek out a young coed to date each school year, he is besieged by worries about his looks and his health, and by fears of having irrevocably passed the point of scholarly relevance. His self-indulgent introspection leaves him little time to give more than passing attention to the social and political developments unfolding around him.

When these events finally affect him personally, and so become too consequential to ignore, François filters his understanding of them through the prism of the late 19th century literary figures who have formed the focal point of his academic career. In particular he returns throughout the story to the life and work of novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, who was the subject of his dissertation and the focus of his subsequent scholarly work. We learn that Huysmans’ early writing followed the Naturalist tradition, but that later in life it was considered part of the Decadent movement, a key aspect of which was a rejection of modern progress. Late in life Huysmans had turned to Christianity and taken monastic vows.

François seems to identify deeply with the writing of Huysmans’ Decadent period, turning it into a kind of rationalization for his own listless, unengaged existence. When the surprising changes happening outside his door leave him further isolated, however, he attempts to follow in the footsteps --- figuratively and literally --- of Huysmans’ search for religious meaning. This proves unsuccessful, as he finds himself uninspired by Christianity as an outlet from his forlorn and dispirited view of life. Finally forced to face the new world that has seemingly overnight sprung up around him, his lack of a solid, internal moral center leaves him easy prey for the tempting allures attached to embracing the new order.

In the novel, François appears to represent for Houellebecq the larger reaction of the broad, liberal center in France to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood party. Unsettled by the French nativists of the far right, and reflexively sympathetic to the concept of cultural diversity, liberal, mainstream French society drifts uncritically into support of the Muslim Brotherhood party when faced with the alternative of the National Front.  Exploiting this lack of conviction, the Muslim Brotherhood party manages to implicate itself into political power in France, and through a thoughtful and careful strategy lead French society to gradually re-align itself around the Brotherhood’s far-reaching, longer-term goals.

In what was perhaps one of the more dramatic coincidences in the history of publishing, the original French version of the novel was published on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, the 7th January 2015. The English translation of the book was released just two months before the more recent attacks in Paris on November 13th. Rather than invalidate Houellebecq’s premise, these events in fact play into it, in the sense that a key element of his story is the ability of the Muslim Brotherhood party to quell the violence of extremists, and so ingratiate itself to a society desperately seeking security.

It seems perhaps far-fetched to imagine that a Muslim party could succeed in a Western country. Houellebecq paints, however, a damning view of Western society as weakened by its own liberal democratic values, and what he portrays as a moral relativism that prioritizes sensitivity to cultural differences and so has no firm basis for defending its own values and principles --- in fact, no concrete values and principles even to defend, in some sense. When these weaknesses combine with natural human desires for security --- economic, social and physical --- Houellebecq envisions a decadent Western society that is an easy target for a fundamentalist group with a patient, well thought-out agenda and strategy.

Other reviews / information:

In a larger article reviewing several works about Albert Camus, Historian Thomas Meaney discusses how the Algerian push for independence half a century ago tested the French belief that France provides "an exclusive, historically grounded identity for its citizens that it claimed was available to all its subjects"; in The Colonist of Good Will: On Albert Camus in the The Nation magazine, 16th September 2013.

Writing in the weeks after the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack and the coincident publication of Submission, Stéphane Delorme, editor-in-chief of Cahiers du Cinéma, derides Houellebecq's novel as "this fetid and incendiary book", in his article Insoumission, translated into English and re-printed in the The Nation magazine, 4th March 2015.

Read quotes from this book

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf