Science Fiction and the Red Planet

Today’s post is by our sci-fi-guy, Harold Kramer.

Mars, our nearest planetary neighbor, has always fascinated science fiction writers here on planet earth.  Science fiction about Mars began with Jules Verne and his 1865 novel From Earth to the Moon.  This novel, like many others by Verne, was accurate in concept, although technology in his day made many of his ideas impossible to execute.

During the first half of the 20th century, science fiction writers were obsessed with Martians. Belligerent Martians invaded earth in H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds. Orson Welles’s 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds even caused a nationwide panic.  Written in 1950, The Martian Chronicles, a collection of strange and haunting short stories by Ray Bradbury were about an expedition to the red planet. Another early Mars novel was A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs who was a master of fast-moving adventure stories, whether in the jungle with Tarzan or on the moon with the Princess.  I have recently re-read some of these early science fiction novels and, while definitely not scientifically accurate, they still are good reads.

Beginning in the 1970s, the first NASA and Russian probes and rovers obtained real scientific data about Mars. Once sci fi writers realized that there were no little green men on Mars, science fiction tackled more realistic Martian topics and focused on the challenges of human colonization on the red planet.  A major sci fi theme was terraforming Mars to make it into a self-sustaining environment that was fit for life that developed on earth. Another major theme was what type of society and governmental structure might exist in a Mars colony.

One of the first works that explored these ideas was The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. This series consists of three books:  Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. Red Mars won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1993.  Blue Mars won the 1997 Hugo Award. The trilogy begins with Red Mars when the first colonists arrive on Mars and simply try to survive. Green Mars and Blue Mars and continue the story one hundred years in the future when Mars has been terraformed into a green and politically independent world. My favorite of the three is the first book, Red Mars.

Ben Bova has written four related novels about Mars: Mars, Return to Mars, Mars Inc. and Mars Life. The planet Mars is the fourth  stop on his Grand Tour – a series of related novels that take place in the 21st Century and that focus on exploration and colonization of every planet in our solar system.  I enjoy reading Ben Bova’s books because of his clear writing, scientific imagination, and expansive ideas.

The Martian by Andy Weir, written in 2011, is my favorite book about Mars.  I couldn’t put it down once I started reading it.   It won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Science Fiction in 2014 and the Audie Award in 2015 for best science fiction audio book. The Martian is a modern-day Robinson Crusoe story about an American astronaut who is presumed dead but who is actually alive and stranded on Mars. What makes it so interesting is that the technology is highly credible, and the writing is taut. It was made into a movie in 2015 that was directed by Ridley Scott and starred Matt Damon.

​Many other great science fiction novelists have written about Mars.  These include Greg Bear’s Moving Mars and Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars. Also notable are Larry Niven’s Rainbow Mars and Robert Heinlein’s classic, Stranger in a Strange Land.

Although this is a science-fiction blog post, I would like to mention a non-fiction book about Mars and planetary exploration and colonization. It is called The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and our Destiny Beyond Earth, by physicist Michio Kaku.  This scientifically based work is an extraordinary projection of the future of humanity as it moves from earth to the stars.

Leading Ladies in Literature – Strong Female Reads for International Women’s Day (March 8)

When asked to write a post about strong female protagonists, it took me longer than I’d like to admit to think of my favorites. Even if I’ve read hundreds of books over the course of my life, only a handful stand out in their portrayal of a female lead. Most often, the most interesting characters I’ve come across are varied, flawed, and human, filled with errors and quirks that I find easy to relate to in my day to day life. These are the women I find myself relating to (even if I do wish I could be as perfect as Hermione Granger) and rooting for. I’ve compiled a list of a few of my favorites, which barely scratch the surface of the wonderful and wide world of women in books, but hey, we all have to start somewhere.

If I’ve missed your favorites, please feel free to leave a comment down below, I’m always looking to add books to my reading list.                                                    

She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. First off, this is a book I swore to never read again, ironically,  just because of how much it hurts to read. Wally Lamb is a master of creating a character you physically hurt for after getting to know them, and Dolores Price is no different. At once a fragile girl and a hard-edged cynic, so tough to love yet so inimitably lovable, Dolores is as poignantly real as our own imperfections. Through rough edges and rougher trials, including assault, mental institutions, absentee parents and lonely adulthood, Lamb shapes a character you find yourself cursing at, wincing for, and holding close.

519bogs1ivl._sx330_bo1,204,203,200_How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran. After she shames herself on local TV, 14-year-old Johanna Morgan reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde–a fast-talking, hard-drinking Gothic hero and full-time Lady Sex Adventurer. Watching Johanna stumble through her rebirth into a plucky more confident version of herself made me look back fondly (and lets be honest, not that fondly) on my high school years. Trying to re-brand yourself, whether it be with new fish net stockings, a streak of pink in your hair, or a new favorite band, is a rough process. How to Build A Girl highlights how surface level all of these additions are, and asks the question, how far will one really go to re-imagine themselves? I found myself wanting to hug the pivotal character Johanna, and tell her it gets better, if not by action, then by time. It seems like even if she’s struggling, Johanna is a character you find yourself egging on, and even being somewhat jealous of at times.

The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein.  I brought this book on vacation thinking I’d enjoy a pulpy novel about crime scene clean up. I’m a true crime fan myself, and my interest in forensic science has led me down an interesting path in terms of books in the past year. This book turned out to be the opposite of pulp, and had very little to do with crime scene clean up after all. Sandra Pankhurst is a titan in the industry of Specialized Trauma Cleaning, she does her job and she does it well. Before she began professionally cleaning up their traumas, she experienced her own. First, as a little boy, raised in violence and excluded from the family home. Then as a husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, and trophy wife. The true life story of Sandra left me wounded in ways I didn’t expect. In a world that profits of making jokes of hoarders and death, this book, and Sandra, treat these people with dignity. She bags up their postcards, their books, their recipe cards tucked into binders, and saves them from the despair of dirt and mold. She returns them to their family, and gives the people effected by it hope to start their life over. She never once jokes at their expense, or teases them for their situation behind closed doors. After going through such a violent and unforgiving life, Sandra shows grace and humility, mixed in with grit and sarcasm I find comforting.

51cbsqw0cbl._sx331_bo1,204,203,200_Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer.  If you’re looking for a strange, otherworldly novel, that expands into two more books, then the Southern Reach trilogy is for you.  A group of female scientists, ignoring the high mortality rate of the previous missions, travels into an area only known as “Area X” to research a strange phenomenon.  Their mission is to map the terrain, record all observations of their surroundings and of one another, and, above all, avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.  The narrator, the biologist of the group,  is a strange and difficult character to get a hold on. You don’t know her motives until they uncover themselves, slowly and methodically throughout the text. She seems driven by knowledge and the unknown alone, until it’s revealed that she had a husband who also went into the reach, but who came back strange and unrecognizable. I think one of my favorite parts of this character is that she’s not a broken record throughout the story. She doesn’t repeat over and over her need to find her husband in the Reach, if anything, she loses that goal almost immediately. Her goals become more abstract, her position as a narrator is unreliable at best, which makes her all the more interesting.

Some other books with strong female protagonists worth checking out: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell, Little Women by Louise May Alcott, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

Authors Neal Stephenson & Emily St. John Mandel: Different Visions for the Future of Mankind

Today’s guest post is by Harold Kramer, our go-to sci-fi guy!

While his works are usually categorized as science fiction, author Neal Stephenson’s novels span many genres, since they interweave politics, religion, archaeology, philosophy, technology, computer programming, and cryptography.  His novels take place the past, present, and future and often include actual historical characters.  His early, innovative cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash was named one of Time magazine’s 100 best English-language novels.

My favorite Neal Stephenson book is Cryptonomicon.  It takes place during two distinct periods, World War II and 1997.  The main characters are from the same family, but they are from different generations.  It’s a novel for people who like science-based, thought-provoking, fiction.  The plot focuses on the British government’s efforts at code breaking during World War II. If you are familiar with the movie The Imitation Game, many of the real-life characters in that film appear in this work of fiction.

I recently read Stephenson’s latest novel Seveneves.  In this book, Earth becomes uninhabitable when an unidentified object strikes the moon that bursts into fragments.  These fragments eventually surround and smother the earth.  Humans survive by migrating to “space arks” where they must live for thousands of years.  Through various circumstances, political squabbles, and other unforeseen events, seven women, the seven Eves, are left to re-populate mankind. However, five thousand years later, humans have been discovered still living on earth resulting in complications between those who are earthbound and those who are space- bound.  While this topic has been covered by many other science fiction novels, Stephenson’s book has a unique perspective and it is based on hard scientific facts that make it stand out from the usual “earthlings migrate to space” novels.

Another dystopian novel, with a radically different point of view is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. It  was a National Book Award Finalist and won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award.  In this book, the earth is ravaged by a mysterious plague that wipes out much of mankind.  Earth has become a world with no technology – not even electricity.  The story focuses on a group of survivors who are musicians and actors and are called The Traveling Symphony.  They travel from town to town performing works of art from the past.  The book concerns their amazing journey and is full of colorful characters who end up at an abandoned airport called “The Museum.”  There is a villainous “prophet” who provides an interesting plot element.

Thanks to the readers who responded to my first blog post with some suggestions for authors worth considering.  I’m happy to mention Larry Niven, author of The Ringworld series, a classic work of science fiction and Anne McCaffrey, author of the Dragonriders Series and the first woman to win both a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award. Let me know if you have more science fiction or fantasy authors worth noting.

 

Coffee – Boosting Brain Power and Late Night Reads

If you’re looking for coffee in Cheshire, you don’t have to stray far to find a good cup. You can go to one of what seems like fifty Dunkin Donuts (or is it just Dunkin now?) or stop in to Cheshire Coffee for one of their seasonal pumpkin spice blends. But as crafty and creative person, I’ve always wanted to perfect the art of brewing my own cup at home. Usually I just pop a pod in the Keurig, and add some overly sweet creamer. But if you’re looking to learn a bit more about coffee, or add some books to your late night reading list, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve gone through the shelves and picked out a healthy selection of books on the art of brewing, and a few thrillers for library night owls like myself.

 

First off we have Craft Coffee : A Manual – Jessica Easto

Written by a coffee enthusiast, for coffee enthusiasts, this beginners guide to craft coffee explores different techniques of coffee making at home. Learn about different techniques, pour over, immersion, and cold brew, using up to ten different devices. This guide also goes over the basics of selecting brew by roast, selecting equipment, and deciphering the coffee bag.

 

Next, if you’re looking for something to keep you up at night, try Stephen King’s The Outsider .

In the aftermath of a boy’s brutal murder in Flint City, a local detective is forced to arrest a popular Little League coach who, in spite of an alibi, presents with open-and-shut evidence that is called into question when the suspect’s true nature and the realities of the crime come to light. King never fails to disappoint, and his latest novel is no different.

 

If you’re more interested in how your coffee gets from the farm, to the store, and to the cup, then Robert W Thurston’s book Coffee – From Bean to Barista is for you.

This engaging guide to coffee explains its history, cultivation, and culture, as well as the major factors influencing the industry today. The first book that coffee lovers naturally will turn to, it will also appeal to anyone interested in globalization, climate change, and social justice. This book has it all, especially if you’re   a person who needs to know every detail about what they enjoy.

 

If you’re looking for a fresh take on thriller, try Gillian Flynn, specifically my favorite of her novels, Gone Girl .

When a beautiful woman goes missing on her fifth wedding anniversary, her diary reveals hidden turmoil in her marriage and a mysterious illness; while her husband, desperate to clear himself of suspicion, realizes that something more disturbing than murder may have occurred. This book is really a treat, the way the author describes her characters makes you both love and hate them at the same time. I didn’t know which characters to hate and which to root for, which is a testament to her writing ability. If this book draws you in, you’re in luck, it’s also a movie! Starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, it’s a faithful adaptation of a great book.

 

Last but not least, it’s important to take a break, smell the roses, and sip the coffee. Check out The Little Book of Fika .

While the Danish concept of hygge as caught on around the globe, so has lagom—its Swedish counterpart. An essential part of the lagom lifestyle, fika is the simple art of taking a break—sometimes twice a day—to enjoy a warm beverage and sweet treat with friends. This delightful gift book offers an introduction to the tradition along with recipes to help you establish your own fika practice.

 

You can find all of these books, and more, at the Cheshire Public Library! Take a mid day Fikagrab a cup of joe and indulge in a good book.

 

That Wild Wild West

Westerns are not my bag. They cover a very short piece of history (usually post-Civil War to the early 1900’s), they’re often trite, and too many of them bore me. You can run down a checklist for almost every one: Horse? Check. Damsel? Check. Angry Indian? Check. Sheriff?  Check. Big shootout? Check.

Clichéd

No doubt, much of my boredom has to do with Hollywood Westerns. Though I’ve never seen the entire Terror of Tiny Town, I’ve suffered a few westerns. I did like Tombstone, and the remake of True Grit, Young Guns, Maverick, and yes, I admit, I did enjoy The Lone Ranger – three times. Maybe I’m un-American, but I can’t stand John Wayne or his films, and while I was excited to watch High Noon (it was mentioned in the TV show M*A*S*H*, and actor Harry Morgan appeared in both), it was a terribly disappointing, tragically dull film to someone used to modern Hollywood. It turned me off from ever attempting My Darling Clementine or Shootout at the OK Corral. So while I can handle modern westerns, those old classic hallmarks aren’t found on my shelves.

Nor had I ever read a real “Western,” although a couple of Best-Western Literature lists include children’s books like the Little House on the Prairie series, as well as Old Yeller (you could probably throw in Young Pioneers, Caddie Woodlawn, Seven Alone, and the sequel to Old Yeller, Savage Sam), and those I loved just fine. If you read through twenty different lists of what’s considered the best of Old West literature, you’ll find ten books are on every list, so let’s call them the Best Westerns of Literature (not to be confused with Best Western, the hotel, or Western Lit as opposed to Asian):

The Virginian – Owen Wister
Hondo – Louis L’Amour
Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry
True Grit – Charles Portis
All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
The Shootist – Glendon Swarthout
Riders of the Purple Sage – Zane Grey
The Time it Never Rained – Elmer Kelton
The Ox-Bow Incident – Walter Van Tildenberg Clark
Shane – Jack Schaefer

Fresh and Award-Winning

I could have lived the rest of my life just fine without Westerns, except for one thing: someone I knew was writing one. I’ve seen Howard Weinstein for many years at various conventions, attended some of his writing workshops, and we know each other at least in passing. Howard’s written more than 18 books, from science fiction to dog training to Mickey Mantle, and some 65 comic books. To make sure he got it right, he visited several of the places he wrote about, making sure he got the details, and over a year or more I listened to him talk about his work and read excerpts from it. It was interesting, but… It was a western.

Galloway’s Gamble was published last September, and now it’s won an award: The Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award for Best First Western Novel. So I had a quandary: support a fellow writer in his award-winning endeavor, or ignore his success on a project he loved dearly. I thought I’d done my duty by having the library order a copy, but I buckled down and opened my first western.

photo courtesy of Howard Weinstein

Galloway’s Gamble is the story of Jake and Jamey Galloway, two brothers who shift about aimlessly looking to find their purpose and not doing well at it. They join the Civil War too late, they miss marrying the girls they had their eyes on, they get taken by a cheating card shark, and horse-shy Jake just can’t manage to hang onto a hat. Yet, little by little, they take steps and missteps to change their fortune, and wind up trying to save their little Texas hometown from the villainous cattle baron Wilhelm Krieg and the corrupt banker Silas Atwood. 

As a western, I can’t judge Galloway’s Gamble, since I’ve read nothing to compare it to, but winning an award is pretty good sign. As a novel, you certainly don’t have to like westerns to enjoy it. The story of the Galloway brothers is a timeless tale of the little man against the powerful, with a cast of characters that never lets you walk away for long – you have to pick it back up and find out what happens. While the influence of films like Maverick is evident (which is not a bad thing), there isn’t an overwhelming number of bullets, horses, swaggering men in hats, and no cliché’d slang that could be a turn-off to the casual reader. Instead, you get a solid, interesting story that just happens to take place in the late 1800’s.

Give it a try. If you like it (and I’m sure you will), you might find some of the classic westerns to your liking, too. I think I’m going to go watch Maverick again.