I just finished the novel The Martian, and I enjoyed it. The title may be a little off-putting to people who aren't fans of science fiction, so you'll have to accept my reassurance that this book is science-y and fiction-y, but is for the most part very grounded in reality.  That is, of course, if you can suspend any disbelief regarding mankind's ability to put together a manned mission to Mars.

The title character, Mark Watney, isn't a little green guy, he's an astronaut that suffers an accident during a Martian storm. His crew mates believe he is dead and are forced to evacuate the red planet while they can. However, Mark survives his injury and wakes up all alone. To make matters worse his communications equipment is also destroyed in the storm and no one even knows he's alive.

The good news (for him and us) is that Mark is a resourceful guy. He was the mission's botanist and, like all astronauts, well versed in engineering and chemistry. The book describes in great detail the science behind Mark's method's of tackling the problems that arise. The first problem? Find a way to grow enough food to keep him alive until the next Mars mission visits ~2 years later.

In the end, this book is a bit of a cross between Apollo 13 and The Castaway. If you enjoyed watching the engineers in Apollo 13 pull out their slide rules to solve problems you'll like this book. The author obviously gave a lot of thought to how things would work on Mars, what problems would arise, and how they could be solved. Some may be critical of the detailed technical descriptions of what Mark Watney is doing, I liked it, and the book is definitely a page turner.

AuthorTodd Zarwell

I finished Year Zero last night and I thought I'd mention it here because I found the premise to be pretty amusing

In short, humans are really really good at music. For some reason our position in our galaxy makes us really good at recognizing what makes great music. Mind you, these aliens are supposedly "refined", and they're good at everything else. They just suck at music.

Year Zero: A Novel
By Rob Reid

Anyway, at some point in the 70's they discovered Earth music and, well, they became obsessed. Quickly every alien in the universe had the entire Earth's library on their little-green-guy version of their iPods.

However, in their delirious excitement, they didn't pay for it. And, as refined species, they are honor bound to obey the native planet's laws. Unfortunately for them Earth's recording industry somehow thinks pirating a song justifies a $150K penalty. Multiply this by all the aliens in the universe and you get a pretty big number. Then, multiply that number by all the songs produced by all the countries on Earth (except in North Korea) and you get an inconceivable number.

As a result, the aliens are indebted to the Earth for more money than exists in the universe. So, a rogue alien labor union decides to surreptitiously help Earthlings find a way to destroy themselves.

Enter an mid-level music industry attorney and his love interest and, well, hijinks ensue.

Oh, a bit of a spoiler, but it turns out a retired CEO of a huge company that makes operating systems for the majority of the computers in the world is an alien. And he's single handedly responsible for creating a drastic slowdown in the technological advancement of humankind. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't suspected that . . .

AuthorTodd Zarwell

I thought I'd do my a book report - after all, I've had nearly 20 years to read for pleasure without draconian literature professors forcing me to write about it!

I'd been hearing about this book in some of the various podcasts I listen to, and, always in search of a good read, I checked it out.

To save you from reading the jacket cover (or the Amazon page - it's the internet age, after all), I'll give you the rundown: The year is 2044, and the world is in the midst of an energy and financial crisis (a little too close for comfort?)  Everybody escapes real life by immersing themselves in a virtual reality world called Oasis.  

Oasis was created by a man who grew up in the 1980's, and, on his deathbed, announced that he had hidden a series of puzzles inside his creation. The person who solves the puzzle will be rich and will win the right to control Oasis.  The protagonist is a teenager who takes the lead in solving the puzzles.  Of course there's an evil corporation trying to win the prize too, as well as an attractive albeit mysterious love interest.  Actually, everybody has a little mysteriousness going on because they all know each other as avatars within their virtual world.

The intersting part is the Oasis creator's clues revolve around the culture of his youth, especially the geek culture of that era.  As a consequence the youth of 2044 become obsessed with the latter half of the twentieth century and spend inordinate amounts of time "studying" Pac Man, Schoolhouse Rock, and John Hughe's movies.

Some parts of this book really struck a chord for me.  The inventor of the Oasis was born in 1972 (as was I), so it seemed like it was tailor-made for a 39 year old nerd who came of age in the 1980's.  He mentions receiving a Atari 2600 in 1979 (as did I).  There are even references to storing data on analog tapes, Dodge Omnis, and paying 93¢ a gallon for gas (freaky coincidences, or has the author been stalking me?).

Was it a good book?  Well, to be honest, the writing of the book reminds me of the style I see in fiction aimed at juniors.  Perhaps it's because the main character is a teenager, but it seemed a little strange because the book is obviously going to be most enjoyed by people in their late 30's.

However, it's hard not to enjoy all the references to things I loved in the 80's , some of which I haven't thought about in quite a while:

TV Shows: Family Ties, The Greatest American Hero, Airwolf, A Team, The Greatest American Hero, Misfits of Science (does anyone besides me remember that one!?), Buck Rogers, Silver Spoons

Video Games: Pitfall, Zaxxon, Galaga, Q Bert

Movies: War Games, Real Genius, Better Off Dead, Evil Dead, Vision Quest, Explorers

However, the author doesn't go into much detail about most of these. In fact, it's almost as if he made a list of all the things he loved and wrote a book around it.  In some ways it feels a little like I was being manipulated, as if the author thought the mere mention of these subjects would stimulate some nostalgic pleasure center in my brain.

But, of course it did.

AuthorTodd Zarwell