I had various ambitious plans over the last weekend, but I ended up spending most of my free time reading The Martian, which had come in for me at the library and proved to be one of those fun page-turners that is hard to put down. Having finished, I'd definitely recommend it (with a language warning) and given that I've read a fair amount of fiction lately it seemed like time for a quick rundown:
I was initially drawn to Weir's near-future hard SF novel dealing with the struggle for survival of an astronaut accidentally abandoned on Mars by reading about how his novel went from free web edition to Kindle self-published ebook best seller to commercially published hard cover. That's a history I find interesting, given our penchant for writing novels on the blog. I also found the plot description interesting, as near-future realistic SF is a neglected sub-genre these days.
Weir really knows his science, and the novel is an engaging problem solver with and increasing tempo throughout. Most of the novel is told in the form of astronaut Mark Watney's log entries after he comes to after having been injured, knocked unconscious, and left for dead during an emergency evacuation of the third human expedition to Mars. The severe sand storm which caused the evacuation has died down, and the habitat in which the astronauts lived is intact, so in the near term he has food, water, and air. But his communications with Earth are knocked out and the next Mars mission isn't scheduled to arrive for nearly three years, so if he's going to survive until he has a chance of rescue, he needs to find a way to significantly extent his food supply.
As the novel progresses, we continue to get 80% of the story through Mark's log entries, but we also see occasional scenes back at NASA and with his crew mates who are headed back to Earth.
Like the similarly enjoyable hard SF from the "golden age" back in the 1940s and '50s, characterization is close to one dimensional. Mark's ingenuity and sense of humor make the book a pleasure to read, but none of the characters, him included, are deeply drawn. I wouldn't so much say this is bad writing, as with perhaps one or two minor exceptions I wouldn't say Weir ever has a character act in a way that doesn't seem humanly explicable. It's just that he's tightly limited his narrative to the scope of solving the problem at hand. This isn't a novel about the place of humans in the universe or why a world which can at times be so indifferent to suffering can at others pull together in order to save just one human life. It's a novel about how to solve a long string of interesting problems, rigorously thought out. And in that scope, it's intensely engaging.
The Polish Officer
This was the first Alan Furst spy thriller that I ever read, and returning to re-read it after a number of years (and reading all the novels he's written since) I'd still rate it as one of his best. It follows the experiences of Polish Captain Alexander de Milja, a map analyst on the Polish general staff who is recruited into the intelligence service of the Polish government (and army) in exile after the conquest of Poland in 1939 by Germany and the Soviet Union.
As always, Furst's research is top notch, and he subtly works to counteract some of the things which "everyone knows" in retrospect about the war and the nations involved. For instance, all the Polish characters stake their hopes, after the occupation of their own country, on France really getting into the war: France had fought Germany to a stand still twenty years before and eventually beaten them. Surely they can do it again. It's only once he's working with Polish intelligence in Paris, talking to French officers, that de Milja realizes that the spirit of 14-18 is not there. The French leaders are seeing themselves as a beaten force even before the army is hopelessly disrupted by the German advance.
More than some of his other novels, this one makes a point of sketching out the overall shape of the war as it develops, but it does so with a deft hand and never becomes pedantic. The reader feels that he is coming along with the characters in what he learns. Furst never crams history in edgeways and it never interrupts the story.
Having read a number of his novels now, one of the things which is characteristic of Furst's novels is that his character's are low on close personal connections. de Milja is married, but his wife has been in a mental sanitorium for some years when the story opens, distant from the world. He is not able to take her with him she he flees the country. During the course of the novel, he has several sexual relationships of varying closeness, but one of the things that he recognizes as happening to himself is that as he has given himself more fully to the clandestine way of fighting that he is engaged in, he necessarily commits himself to not forming human attachments. In trying to destroy those who have destroyed his country, he is engaged in destroying his own life further. So it does flow naturally from the kind of events being described (espionage is not the kind of work that those with close and stable families are drawn to) and yet in that Furst's novels seem to rise above the espionage genre and succeed as very good stand-alone novels about the period, I find myself wishing we could see a bit more of the sort of life that is being fought for.
Fall of Giants
I decided to give the first volume of Ken Follet's Twentieth Century Trilogy a try on audiobook this month, because Follet is a best seller in the "big history" type of historical fiction. I figured I should know the marketplace a bit since I'm aiming to try my hand at it. I wasn't necessarily expecting a brilliantly written work, best sellers often aren't, but I figured it'd give me a sense of what sells.
I'm not finished yet, so this deals with the first quarter or so of the 1000+ page book. However, it strikes me in relation to the other two books that I just mentioned in that both of them have limited characterization and very good description of unfamiliar places or times, yet carry off what they're trying to accomplish very well. Weir's characters may not go far, but what we see of them seems very realistic. Fursts characters are all of a certain type, but they are very good portrayals of their type. Follet's scope wide: He follows an English earl, a Welsh coal mining family, a pair of orphaned Russian brothers, a German military attache, and a well connected young American lawyer. He's determined to get major world figures in too, so we see President Wilson, King George V, and Winston Churchill. The handling, however, is not deft.
Follet has a lot of exposition he wants to get through, and he cheerfully crams it in everywhere. At one point, the German military attache goes to talk to his father about the woman he wants to marry (the English earl's sister), and end up digressing into explaining in abbreviated textbook fashion how Germany is trapped between France and Russia and thus has developed the Schlieffen Plan in which it will defeat France first and then turn to fight Russia. You get asides such as "He wondered if Britain's bird-watching foreign minister was in London, or if he was off at the country house which he so adored." I'm sure you find similar thoughts running through your head on a summer Sunday morning.
His attempts at human relationships are similarly painful. Romance is handled with the same blunt exposition as foreign affairs, and while the characters are too shallow for one to care much about their sex lives, Follet is determined to show us, even in patently unlikely ways. (Not only does one not want to read about a clumsily described hand-job in an opera box, but if the author is going to put in lines like "She thrilled at the touch of his hardness through the soft fabric of the pale grey suit he wore", he should at least consider (I hesitate to say "have the decency to consider) that no man, no matter how besotted, is going to want to be given a hand job while wearing a pale grey suit if he's going to have to talk out of the box before the eyes of hundreds of fellow opera goers in a few minutes. For obvious reasons.
I pretty much always finish audiobooks since, when I'm in the car commuting, I'm a captive audience, so I'm sure I'll finish this one, if only for the market research reasons mentioned above. But this is a pretty badly written book.