Friday, November 28, 2014

Science Rules: Andy Weir's The Martian

The other week, a spaceprobe landed on a flipping comet. What was previously only possible in Bruce Willis movies is now reality, and the probe has since learned all sorts of scientific stuff from this mission... I assume. I don't know what it was for, I don't really follow the news, but I'd be satisfied to hear they did it just because they could. Once thing that people seem to agree on lately is that space is cool: Neil DeGrasse Tyson is cool, that Mars rover guy with the mohawk is cool, Chris Hadfield is cool (who, I should always point out, went to the same high school as me, but you know, before I was born.) The whole concept of looking to the stars is cool these days in a way it hadn't been for a while. What The Martian by Andy Weir does, besides tell a gripping tale of survival, is tap into that zeitgeist, that thirst that we as a people now have for the subject matter that we didn't a short while ago. Not just by being about space travel, but by being about space travel in the way that draws on what we all find so fascinating about it.

A lot of that is up to the main character, Astronaut Mark Watney, who is left stranded on Mars when his crew believes him dead. Most of the book is written in the form of logs Watney writes upon finding himself the sole inhabitant of the red planet. Given that, in order to make it to outer space, you need to have a huge base of knowledge (Watney is a botanist and engineer) and he relies on a lot of this knowledge to facilitate his survival, the book in concept runs perilously close to being a dry lecture on how one might conceivably survive on Mars. Watney is written with a goofy charm, though: a quirky sense of humour that lands him just on the good side of "snarky Big Bang Theory character." At one point he has to describe a very wordy unit of measurement, so he chooses to abbreviate it to "pirate-ninja." He's self-effacing and vulnerable, aware of the gravity (haa) of his situation, and sure intimidated by it, but never overwhelmed by its hopelessness. So he becomes a guy we are eager to hear from, root for, and relate to... which it makes it easier to read attentively when he's describing the process of converting oxygen and hydrogen into water, or farming potatoes in the habitat. Why he has potatoes on Mars is one of the bigger leaps the book asks us to take, but is pretty necessary to believe in for the story to happen.

So yes, while there's a lot of hard science in the book (which I can only assume is reasonably accurate) it never drags, never bewilders, never loses the point or falls too in love with the idea with explaining the gadgetry and methodology. It retains forward momentum, and while it doesn't expect its readers to be experts, it doesn't aim itself at idiots either: you picked up a book about a guy surviving on Mars, you're going to learn how this guy survives on Mars, dammit!

The book has an equal reverence for science and human determination - basically the recipe for an astronaut. Like, if you're not into hearing what an awesome bunch of people astronauts are, (crazy bastards to blast into space in giant bombs basically just to look at rocks) - and even ground control gets into the mix - this is decidedly not the book for you. Luckily, as we know now, science is pretty damn cool, and is a favourite subject of a large number of cool people.

Come for the content, stay for the tone. As much as the situation is dire, on a fairly grandiose scale, its view never slips from the very human, eye-level perspective on Watney, and later the people charged with helping to save him. In fact, I'm actually a little disappointed that Ridley Scott picked it up to adapt, with Matt Damon in the lead role, because that feels like they're taking a fun, quirky story and trying to wring a prestige picture out of it (not to mention there's not a ton of action and thrills in the idea of Watney riding a 20 km/h rover for days on end.) The project threatens to unsettle everything that makes the book what it is. It would make a great cult film, though.

I do have some nitpicks of my own, which have nothing to do with the scientific content. I could have done with an Epilogue rather than the novel's somewhat abrupt ending, but that ending is consistent with the concerns of the book. The other nitpick threatens to unravel the whole thing: at one point CNN is described as airing a regular half-hour program called "The Watney Report." In reality, CNN covered the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 around the clock for weeks on end with absolutely no developments to report on, so it's safe to say the entire network would be the Watney Network.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Just a Way To Hide Your Face: Doctor Who Series 8 Thoughts

I had been writing weekly recaps for Comics! The Blog, but eased back when it became clear they were doing a pretty good job covering it themselves.

"Never trust a hug. It's just a way to hide your face."

Like a lot of long-running sci-fi series, it sometimes feels like Doctor Who can do nothing right. Depending on who you ask, the show is either being run by the wrong guy, stars the wrong guy, has the wrong actress playing his friend, leans too hard on romantic relationships or not hard enough, is too scary, too corny, too episodic, too serialized, too British, too old-fashioned, too pleased with itself. It can be hard to engage as a member of the fandom because more and more it's feeling like everyone who loves Doctor Who hates Doctor Who.

I'm not just talking about the often very valid criticisms about showrunner Steven Moffat's style, and his tricky relationship with his viewing public. I think in general a lot of people want a lot of different things from Doctor Who: because the show can be a lot of different things and over the course of its history - not just its 50-year existence but even since returning to TV in the form we now recognize - it has. Sometimes it's romantic and sweet, and sometimes it's dark and traumatizing. Sometimes it's corny, sometimes it's whimsical. Sometimes you get Weeping Angels, sometimes you get Slitheen.

Like, I've learned to be pretty forgiving of a show whose first major alien menace of the 21st Century was a bunch of farting aliens who looked like evil fat monster babies.

Series 8 bent the show against some of my preferred traits: in general a lot of time was spent unpacking the relationship between Clara and the Doctor, when I'd usually rather just take it as read and let the show get out of its own way. Did Clara need to sulk off at the end of "Kill The Moon" when she was going to come back the next week and decide she did want to stay on the TARDIS afterwards? Did we need the constant clashing between the Doctor and Danny? Did the Doctor need to be such a miserable dick the whole time?

I twisted in my seat as this season-long character arc played out week after week, and yet with a few exceptions I found myself enjoying the individual episodes. A lot. Most of the season was exceptionally good, whether it was the high adventure of "Robot of Sherwood," the existentially creepy "Listen," or the more conventionally terrifying "Flatline." "Time Heist" was a lot of fun, and "Mummy on the Orient Express" was basically pitch-perfect in its blend of imagery, terror, action and mystery, with the Doctor struggling to save a trainload of people and ultimately throwing himself on the grenade.

And what about the finale? What about giving the fanbase its first gender-bent Time Lord/Lady in "Missy?" What about the finale fate of Danny Pink, or the Brigadier for that matter? As Cyberman plots go, it was pretty good. As Master plots go, it oddly didn't go quite far enough over the top, because the Simm incarnation was such a good fit for the high camp of Russell T. Davies' era, and Missy more befits the sly, low-key femme fatale favoured by Moffat (when she tells you she's bananas you don't quite believe it in the way you did when Simm ran around singing along to the Scissor Sisters.) Yet if it wasn't my favourite story of the year, it provides enough material to talk about, and look at that: fiery discussions are being held all over the internet as we speak as to whether aspects a, b, c and d were good, great, or abominable. (For what it's worth, I'm glad we got Female Master before we got Female Doctor.) You don't spend that much time picking something apart if you don't absolutely love it.

Along the way, Peter Capaldi distinguished his performance from his predecessors in a most expected way. He's older, he's curmudgeonly, he's not really a people person. He's prone to insensitive remarks about Clara's appearance that many in the audience find legitimately offensive. (I think they were shooting for endearingly callous, ended up with something closer to genuinely hurtful.) The TV landscape doesn't need another Hard Man Making The Tough Choices™, but with the Twelfth Doctor, we've got enough reassurance that the grizzled exterior still masks two hearts that beat for humanity. And there's something weirdly adorable about his aversion to hugging.

You have to really love Doctor Who to hate on it. You have to care about the fate of this franchise, which is always in flux and at any moment feels like it's just a few degrees away from becoming something you can't stand anymore. Amid all the criticism of the direction, the performances, the characters' behaviours and everything else, there's a protectiveness that comes with really liking something and not wanting to lose it. We want it to remain the same as it was when we first came to it, and more than that we want it to be better. But hey, it's still only a show.

Personally, I often get the urge to snipe back, "Don't like it? Stop watching it," but that doesn't really engage with the weird complicated feeling of being a Doctor Who fan. It's pragmatic, but not a helpful thing to say and I know that, but I hope people do know why they are still watching it, that they are getting something out of it beyond just new material to complain about. My hope is that everyone can sit back, either now or when the DVDs come out, and realize that this was actually a pretty great 12 hours of television. It's fair to demand a lot from something you love, and I think we all want the show to be exciting, scary, life-affirming and above all forward-thinking. Just don't let your memory of the show be defined solely by the things you don't like about it. That can't be healthy.

In any case, the concept of the Doctor teaming up with Santa Claus seems like a damn brilliant idea to me, so I'm excited for that.