Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Riding Rockets, by Mike Mullane

Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut, by Mike Mullane

Mike Mullane was one of the first space shuttle astronauts, completing three space missions aboard the shuttles Discovery and Atlantis and recording over 350 hours in outer space. His biography is a fascinating look at NASA and the shuttle program, covering selection and training, jealousy and euphoria, and dealing with disaster. He has a great writing style: sometimes funny, sometimes honest, but always hitting just the right note for the story. And what stories! Bathroom humor about colon exams and condom fittings, emotional treatises about the helplessness experienced when strapped into a rocket before takeoff and the frustration of a scratched launch, and poignant tales about fulfilling a life-long dream. The most touching descriptions, however, are about the Challenger disaster.

The shuttle explosion is a tragedy seared into our national consciousness, but for most of us the astronauts who died that day are simply names on a monument. For Mullane it was entirely too personal—he lost friends and coworkers that day. And for Mullane’s family and the families of all the other NASA astronauts, it was the realization of their worst fears. The author doesn’t write just about the sadness, though; his anger at the NASA repeated administrative failures that caused the accident comes through loud and clear. “But as the notes of ‘Taps’ floated in the air I was stirred anew in my anger at NASA management. This should have never happened. It was completely preventable. There had been four years of warnings.” Sadly, any lessons learned were temporary at best; seventeen years later it happened again with Columbia.

More than just a memoir, Riding Rockets is also the story of the shuttle program at NASA. Mullane explains how the selection process worked to become an astronaut, and how frustratingly opaque the selection process for missions was. He doesn’t pull many punches; sexism and misogynist behavior was unbelievably rampant, and the level of jealousy between those chosen for space and those left behind on each mission was shocking. Most surprising was the political infighting between the astronauts that came from the Air Force and those from post-doc educations, and the shared disgust for the “part-time astronauts,” those people added to missions that “hadn’t paid the dues to get there—a lifetime of brutal work and fierce competition.”

Funny and forthright, emotional and educational, poignant and pointed. I utterly enjoyed Riding Rockets and unhesitatingly recommend this biography to anyone.

First Sentence:
I was naked, lying on my side on a table in the NASA Flight Medicine Clinic bathroom, probing at mt rear end with the nozzle of an enema.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Percy Jackson and the Last Olympians, by Rick Riordan

The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan The Sea of Monsters, by Rick Riordan The Titan’s Curse, by Rick Riordan The Battle of the Labyrinth, by Rick Riordan The Last Olympian, by Rick Riordan

This series had been described to me as an American Harry Potter; as I thought that series was overblown and tedious I wasn’t excited about this one. I really like Riordan’s work, though, so when my son discovered Percy Jackson I read them too. What a great decision that turned out to be!

Percy Jackson is a dyslexic twelve year old that suddenly learns his father is Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. This discovery launches an adventure resulting in a battle for supremacy between the Titans and the Olympians in the middle of Manhattan. Along the way we encounter many classic myths alive and well in our current world, such as the Lotus Casino (a Las Vegas nirvana where time stands still), Aunty Em’s Garden Gnome Emporium (home to amazingly lifelike statues), the Minotaur’s labyrinth, centaurs, pegasi, cyclopes, and of course, Mount Olympus (now located above the Empire State Building). This tying of Greek mythology into modern culture is one of treats of this pentology, and Riordan does it well.

While this series is clearly aimed at young adults, I found it thoroughly entertaining. Several of the battles and gambits were resolved rather abruptly via deus ex machina; while this can disappointing in other novels, considering the subject matter here it seemed quite appropriate. The main characters are simple—again suitable for younger readers—but not one-dimensional; the secondary characters aren’t as fully developed, but occasionally find themselves in a key role making them less predictable. Overall, this is a five book odyssey that takes the reader through a fun-filled romp. I enjoyed it, my son enjoyed it, and more importantly, we got to talk about it together.

First Sentence from The Lightning Thief:
Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.
First Sentence from The Sea of Monsters:
My nightmare started like this.
First Sentence from The Titan’s Curse:
The Friday before winter break, my mom packed me an overnight bag and a few deadly weapons and took me to a new boarding school.
First Sentence from The Battle of the Labyrinth:
The last thing I wanted to do on my summer break was blow up another school.
First Sentence from The Last Olympian:
The end of the world started when a pegasus landed on the hood of my car.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Year's Best SF 15, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

Year’s Best SF 15, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

This is a pretty solid group of short stories. All science-fiction tales, all written and published in 2009. Exegesis by Nancy Kress was the most original (and my favorite), following a literary examination of the famous line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” through 700 years of future history. Only five pages long, but the game of Chinese whispers to which we are treated is thoroughly entertaining. Also great was The Consciousness Problem by Mary Robinette Kowal which takes a unique look at where cloning might lead, and Edison’s Frankenstein by Chris Roberson exploring an alternate history where an alien power source is discovered in 1843, rendering the electrical pioneers like Edison and Tesla moot. There doesn’t appear to be any criteria for qualifying as the “Year’s Best” other than the editors whims, but I must say that they didn’t disappoint.

First Sentence (from the introduction):
The year 2009 began with some layoffs and firings in publishing, but not many affecting SF.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Heat Wave, by Richard Castle

Heat Wave, by Richard Castle

Ever since Firefly I’ve been a big Nathan Fillion fan. He is now the star of Castle on ABC; while not as great as Firefly it is still a lot of fun. Castle is this decade’s Magnum, P.I. or Remington Steele; mystery and humor abound, but the character interactions are what keep you tuning in each week. In the show, Fillion plays Richard Castle, a novelist that gets himself assigned to a police detective in order to do research for a new series of thrillers. In this new age of massive cross-promotion, the marketing wonks at ABC had a ghost writer create actual novels by “Richard Castle;” Heat Wave is the first of these.

Somewhat cheesy but still amusing, the novel follows NYPD Detective Nikki Heat as she tries to solve the murder of a real estate tycoon while dealing with an embedded journalist named Jameson Rook. (Sound familiar? :)) This is a good companion to the show; the personalities of the characters in the book mimic those in the show, and some of the events can be found in both places as well. The novel is a common prop in the show and it is fun to see the links between the two. While not in the same caliber as Elizabeth George or Lee Child, this is still an entertaining read—especially for fans of Castle.

First Sentence:
It was always the same for her when she arrived to meet the body.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

With my political leanings tilting more towards libertarianism (or more specifically minarchism) than either of the morally bankrupt controlling political parties, it isn’t surprising that several of my friends and mentors have recommended Atlas Shrugged to me. What is surprising that it took me so long to get around to reading it! I’ve been familiar with the overarching themes of the novel for years, but didn’t understand the venom directed towards it until reading it myself. Gore Vidal described the philosophy of Atlas Shrugged as “nearly perfect in its immorality.” Whittaker Chambers called it “preposterous” and “remarkably silly,” going on to write that it “can be called a novel only by devaluing the term.” My favorite quote about the book, however, comes from a blogger named John Rogers: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

Atlas Shrugged explores a frighteningly plausible United States where the most original businessmen, inventors, and artists refuse to be exploited by the government and vanish from society. The political bureaucracy responds by nationalizing more and more industries, leading to a world in complete decline with its citizens growing lazy on entitlement programs. Rand argues that when people are forced to place the wants and needs of their neighbors above their own at all costs, rewards for hard work vanish and apathy becomes inevitable. “[Robin Hood] died many centuries ago, but until the last trace of him is wiped out of men’s minds, we will not have a decent world to live in. ... He was the man who robbed the rich and gave to the poor.” In Rand’s view of socialism, the thieving poor suck the lifeblood from the productive rich, thus Robin Hood is the archetypal villain. Interestingly, Rand’s protagonists don’t try to fight the system, but instead entirely withdraw from it in a hidden community and actively attempt to speed the fall of society—the theory being that after the collapse, the concealed intelligentsia will emerge and rebuild the world.

As interesting as the subject matter of the novel is and the longevity it has enjoyed, I found the writing surprisingly juvenile and sophomoric. Rand’s characterizations are shallow and one-dimensional; the heroes are all beautiful geniuses with an unbreakable resolve while the villains are weak-willed, unhappy, and irrational. Single paragraphs often run two or three pages and individual sentences last for hundreds of words. At the climax, when the world gets the answer to the persistent question “Who is John Galt?” a single soliloquy prattles on for over 55 dense pages. Often I found myself skimming rather than reading, but don’t feel like I really missed out on anything. A more aggressive editor could easily have made the novel more accessible without compromising the message.

That said, I quite enjoyed the book. Rand’s jingoist anti-welfare, pro-entrepreneurship message sits well with me, and I often found myself cheering and booing at the appropriate times. She does an excellent job of demonstrating how socialism taken to an extreme inexorably leads to corruption, although she ignores the converse thought, that uncompromising capitalism has the same result which I also believe is true. Rand clearly favors material achievement over compassion, and if forced to pick only one I’d have to agree; I’m not a fan of every kid getting a trophy in T-ball, social promotions in school, or affirmative action in any form. However, sentiment does have its place in society—It’s a Wonderful Life remains one of my favorite movies and is a surprisingly effective counterpoint to Atlas Shrugged. In summary, while I’m not going to begin donating my time and money to the Ayn Rand Institute or evangelizing anarchy and rebellion, I do think Rand clearly gets more right than wrong here. Regardless of where your beliefs fall on the political spectrum, Atlas Shrugged asks some interesting questions you should consider.

First Sentence:
“Who is John Galt?”

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