95. The Mars Trilogy: Kim Stanley Robinson

Red Mars
Red Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson

There’s been a long delay in entries from the Book Club of One. That’s because the BCoO has been powering through The Mars Trilogy!

Red Mars, Green Mars, and the conclusion Blue Mars.

The Mars Trilogy is a Sci-Fi tome about the colonization and terraforming of our red neighbor, Mars. Robinson writes a story that is worthy of words like: “Epic” and “Saga”. If you stack the mass market paperbacks together they come pretty close to making a cube of Science Fiction print.

Robinson does some very interesting things with his trilogy. He digs into lots of social, socio-economic, and governmental issues. i’ve mentioned before how much i like it when Sci-Fi is used well to help us see issues from a fresh angle, often helping us see past our own blind spots.  The Mars Trilogy follows the tales of the “First 100” (the first one hundred settlers to Mars) and their immediate descendants (mostly).

Several interesting developments arise that lead us down some long but interesting rabbit trails. A near-cure for aging is formulated, bring up issues of what that looks like morally, socially, and economically. Is the treatment a human right? Is it a benefit for the wealthy? What happens to population control when people don’t die naturally? etc, etc, etc.

There’s the turmoil between those who want to terraform Mars and those who want it left in it’s natural state (“Greens” and “Reds”, who eventually are pressured by circumstance to reach some sort of compromise… “Blues” – spoilers haha).

There’s the task of establishing a whole new government, one unlike any on Earth. Which leads to some very interesting questions.

In the end Robinson brings things back around to the basics of human existence and our search for our place in the scheme of things, leaving us with a conclusion that is tied to the intimate connections between two characters. Two characters who have been with us for the entire trilogy.

My best descriptor of the series is that it is a platform for some pretty ambitious thought experiments.

The Mars Trilogy wasn’t one of my favorite reads of this project so far, which is a real shame. “Aurora”, a newer book by Robinson (published in 2015) is one of my top reads from the past 5 years or so. If you’re looking for something by Kim Stanley Robinson i’d recommend Aurora instead, same style: still using Sci-Fi to ask big questions and think through their ramifications. Aurora is not nearly as daunting as The Mars Trilogy though.

Book Club of One Grade: C- The writing is rock solid, the series is very thorough and in-depth… but for me that may be what kept its BCoO grade lower. If you’re the kind of person who wants that daunting epic read over the summer this could be the very thing you’re looking for. If you’re like me and after some time the large cast of players and the depth become a little overwhelming, well… did i mention that Aurora is one of the best books i’ve ever read?

Home…

We just wrapped up a move to a new place. There’s nothing like packing up all your treasured possessions to nudge you into a time of introspection.

Introspection and reflection.

We spent the last 4+ years in a massive old house.

Grave's House
This Old House we called home

Old say i? Yes, construction was completed on the house in 1901. That’s two years before the Wright brothers launched a flimsy (by design, it was a “flex-wing”) glider down a beach in North Carolina. So before mankind had even rudimentary flight the house was wrapped up and ready for occupation.

Massive say i? Again, yes. “Colonial Revival Style Mansion” is (i believe) how it’s described on the historic registry. Enough space that we sublet most of the upstairs to friends, had TWO full size dining room tables, and converted one of the butler’s kitchens (yeah, i said butler’s kitchens) into a mud-room/laundry room while we were there.

As we searched for places to move into we saw an ad for the house and called for a walk-through mostly as a joke, something fun to do since we were looking at houses to rent anyway.  The first time we walked into the giant we were awestruck by the scale of everything. 12′ Ceilings EVERYWHERE, a set of solid wood pocket doors so massive they looked like castle gates when closed, an opulent dark wood staircase worthy of gone with the wind…

 

If you told me that one day the scale of that house would be dwarfed by our affection for it… i don’t think i could’ve believed you on that day we first set foot inside the house… But somewhere along the way that’s exactly what happened.

Despite the constant battle with mold and mildew, despite the fact that it cost roughly the GDP of a small island nation to “heat”it in the winter months (“heat” was a relative term there, the lowest i ever saw the house was a crisp 40.5 degrees fahrenheit. 98.3 was the warmest my digital thermometer recorded one balmy summer day as well), despite the fact that it was comfortable for about 65 days a year (those in the Early Spring and Mid-Fall), it stopped being a giant old mansion and became Home to us.

 

On that Thursday night, the last day of November, when i placed the last of our possessions in a trailer and turned to survey what had been our kingdom for several years i found that it was much the same as saying goodbye to an old and dear friend. i placed a hand on the woodwork of the foyer wall and said my last goodbye. Grave’s House (it was built by the Graves family and over the years that became its name to us) you will always hold a special place in my heart.

Grave's House Foyer
Yeah it was a great space… but you couldn’t do much with it! The wood-work was outstanding though!

 

Now i lay my head to rest in a nondescript townhome. Embracing the central heat & air, the friendly neighbors (the egalitarian ambiance is nice, you can’t be envious when all your neighbors have the same square-footage as you), and lower utility bills all around. This is now just as much home as Grave’s house ever was, it’s the people you share a roof and walls with that make a place home, now we’re just close enough together that we don’t have to call or text when it’s time to come down for dinner!

 

But we’ll always have our season in Grave’s house.

#57- Small Gods- Terry Pratchett

Small Gods - Terry Pratchett
Small Gods (made my favorite list!)

i’d read Pratchett before, and liked his work. It’s tough to secure Nerd-Card credentials without dipping into Discworld at least a little. Here’s my confession though… i’ve only liked Pratchett’s writing before, never really found myself a huge fan of it. Here’s an addendum to my confession: i LOVED Small Gods!

Small Gods makes you laugh your way into uncomfortable introspection in a magical sort of way that i’ve only really ever seen Adams pull off with the Hitchhiker’s series. One second you’re laughing at the absurdity of belief, or philosophy, or patriotism and then; you’re not laughing anymore! You are wrestling with the realization that you’ve just wrapped one of those things around you like a blanket on a stormy night trusting in that thin cloth to protect you from the boogeys under your mental bed!

Brutha, the main character, is one of my favorite protagonists of all time. His development arc is amazing, heartwarming, inspiring, all those Hallmark movie things without leaving you feeling like flimsy gross noodle-creature (that’s the best descriptor of the effect of Hallmark products, transforming us into bland, flaccid, creatures with lightly warmed hearts.) Vorbis is an amazing baddie, and Brutha’s responses to him are part of the power of the book. Another bonus: you don’t have to know anything at all about the voluminous story-line of Discworld (in which Small Gods is set) to dive into this book. IF you are a Discworld junkie, then there’s plenty of little crumbs dropped along the narrative trail for you too! Great balance of being accessible to those not acquainted with a well developed world while not feeling flimsy to those who are.

Book Club of One Score: A+ Read this one for sure! Small Gods will earn a spot on my bookshelf as a favored read of mine.

#99: The Xanth Series – Piers Anthony

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Xanth Novels!

Disclosure: i’ve read the first three books in the series. In a series that currently sits at 41 books (with two more waiting in the wings for release) i felt like reading the whole series would be an undertaking in itself. An undertaking on par with the NPR’s top 100 Sci-Fi/Fantasy books (the herculean task the Book Club of One is currently doing!).

Here’s what i think you should know about the Xanth books:

  1. There’s going to be more puns than a dad-joke competition. i LOVE a pun so i was the proverbial pig in slop! Some folks get weary of puns after a while, those folks are to be avoided… and if you’re one of those folks it may be best to avoid Xanth.
  2. Xanth books are overall FUN. They’re light and goofy and tons of fun. Don’t think you’re picking up high fantasy or you’re going to be disappointed.
  3. They are about the pay-off at the end. Every one i’ve read has a sweet (and worthy) pay-off in it’s final pages. (the second one, “The Source of Magic” has a very cool pay-off indeed!)

 

If you’re looking for something to pick you up and have a hankering for wacky fantasy then Jump into the expansive pool that Piers Anthony has created and swim around in his world of Xanth.

 

Book Club of One Grade: Solid B! The books are light and fun and tend to be a pretty quick read. Brace yourself for word-play and embrace the wonder of Xanth!

#91: The Illustrated Man -Ray Bradbury

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i like to read older Sci-Fi. i think it gives us a glimpse into the zeitgeist of our recent past in ways other media don’t.

News reports give us an objective view of bygone eras (at least those from the past did)

History books paint for us the portrait the victors have for us to enjoy

Comedy writings and shows allow us to see the humor of those cultures

And Sci-Fi lets us see the hopes or dreads of our forerunners.

This collection of short stories, tied together by the tale of a carnival-freak tattooed head to toe who has at least two very special tattoos that depict the future, was published in 1951. The Illustrated Man paints a picture of Bradbury’s visions for the future that range from dread to beautiful optimism.

Especially engaging was the story, “The Other Foot”. Bradbury couldn’t find anyone to publish the story in the U.S. so he gave it to a magazine overseas. It’s a powerful story of hope for a better future. In a society of segregation and racism Bradbury dreamed of a future not just of equality but of overcoming the hatred that was pervasive in American society.

 

Book Club of One Grade: C+. It’s a quick read, the format makes it easy to power through the stories that aren’t as engaging. Bradbury is (obviously) one of the greats of Sci-Fi and this is a great place to dip your foot into the waters of this American master.

The trouble with scale…

Badlands
Badlands National Park

Ever taken that photo of that amazing breath-taking vista and then later looked at it and been overcome by just how underwhelming it is?

Me too!

It’s the trouble with scale. When you’re there things FEEL big and grandiose. You snap a few photos to remember the awesomeness of the moment at some later date. But the photos don’t capture what was really there. Those mountains seem so plain and boring, so small and distant. That photo snapped from the ledge feels so flat. That geological feature that loomed over you just feels, weak…

Grand Canyon AZ
Grand Canyon

At the risk of sounding pompous and possibly over philosophical, i think life has a scale problem.

Moments that SHOULD be grand and overwhelming sometimes slip away and are forgotten. At the very least they get poorly remembered and buried under the minutiae of day-to-day living.

Sequoia Nat Park
Sequoia National Park

Then moments that shouldn’t even register wind up being these rich and full moments in our lives. Maybe a time you were driving alone in a car and just had a realization. That night you were hanging out with friends doing the same things you almost always do and the gravity of your friendship just landed on you. That fight over some nothing (you can’t even remember what it was about) you had with a loved one that left a scar in that relationship for years.

Yellowstone
American Bison, Yellowstone Nat Park

i remember clearly small moments like fighting with a friend because he was being a total dong and tossing his drink out the car window (first i NEVER litter, and second we had just driven into town to buy said drink). He responded in kind by chucking my own beverage out the passenger window!

i remember a moment laying on a couch, the room pleasantly warmed by the late winter sun. Reading a book (which book? i don’t remember) while two much loved dogs slept nearby.

Glacier National Park
Road to the Sun, Glacier Nat Park

Sitting in my car as a teenager after work listening to the same album i’d listened to a thousand times before.

But important things, life altering moments,  wriggle away from my memory… Births and deaths, first days of school and first day on new jobs, or last days on old jobs.

Yosemite
Monument Valley, Yosemite Nat Park

 

Those moments when you stand at the base of that mountain, or at the precipice of that drop that affords you a view to take your breath away; or those moments when you’re overwhelmed by this new development in your life, or the closing of some door: live in that moment. The problem with scale is that it doesn’t always photograph well….

#96: Sunshine -Robin McKinley

Let me be concise: Don’t.

Sunshine was a longish read that never really hooked me. Heroine that i never really could root for (and i’m practically addicted to strong heroines). Vampire battles and romances that feel bland. Lots of “magic” that should feel like mystery but instead just feels like vaugery…

i hate to be super critical (McKinley did actually write a book that was published, while i’m spending time writing a blog that get read by something like 3 people!) BUT… Sunshine is a HARD PASS for me. i can’t recommend anyone invest the time to read this one cover-to-cover. It left me wondering (repeatedly), “Is there ANOTHER book named Sunshine that got voted onto this list?”

Book Club of One score: F.

To throw some defense up for Sunshine it did win an award: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mythopoeic_Awards

It WAS also published in 2003, while Twilight was published in 2005… This demolished my initial reaction that it was written in that same vein of vampire-“your face fits on this heroine”- love saga that Twilight spawned… i would say this: if Meyers didn’t read and love Sunshine i would be thoroughly shocked, it HAD to be a source for HEAVY inspiration….

But hey, it won an award, enough other people like it for it to make the NPR top 100 Sci-Fi/fantasy book list, and it ranks decently high other places i dig around on the web… so if you’ve got days and days to kill and want that special “purgatory feeling” have at it!

Yuck n’ Yum pt 2

“Don’t Yuck someone else’s Yum” has become a standard litmus test in my life these days. In putting my own reactions to other people and situations in that scale i may have found an exception… Yum-Yucking.

Yum-Yucking- (verb) Yum-Yucking is the act of yucking someone’s yum. Some people enjoy Yum-Yucking to such an extent that it becomes their Yum. Those people become know as Yum-Yuckers (see Yum-Yucker in this fictitious dictionary).

People who’s “YUM” is yucking other people’s yum have become the exception to my tolerance for other peoples brand of yum.

Brace yourself for this:

IF your Yum is Yucking someone else’s Yum then your Yum is no longer protected by the principle of NOT Yucking someone else’s Yum. When Yucking becomes your Yum then (in my opinion) you lose the protections that not Yucking another’s Yum provide.  First Council of Yucking of Yums, passed down generations by sacred scroll writ neat upon grape fruit-by-the-foot.

Yum-Yucking has been around for time out of mind. Whatever the current flavor of “cool-kid” is at the time has always used Yum-Yucking as a go-to. It’s one of the things that i am making an effort to remove from my life. Goes right along with my effort to steer clear of Mean Humor. It’s a base reaction to despise without consideration something that another person finds delight in. This doesn’t mean that every Yum should be accepted. BUT if someone’s Yum causes no harm to others then what is the aim of debasing it?

 

If you want some background on these thoughts of mine you can see more here:

https://grasshopperking0.com/2017/09/28/i-love-dd-and-the-best-lesson-ive-learned-from-it/  (the end of that post is where i delved into Yum Yucking)

or

https://grasshopperking0.com/2017/09/25/mean-humor/  (where i began my journey away from mean humor)

#97: Doomsday Book: Connie Willis

Still plowing through my Book Club of One! Reading through the NPR top 100 Fantasy/Sci Fi novel list!

 

First observation about Doomsday Book: It’s lengthy! 

Second observation: It was worth every page!

Doomsday Book is proper English folks in the near future time traveling! If it was set in America there’d be car-chases and break-ins but because it’s set in jolly old England there’s cruel nurses determined that protagonists get plenty of rest after their sicknesses and heated chats between ole’ chaps when one is caught trespassing (after he had convinced a security guard through friendly conversation that he was supposed to be let in).

 

There’s a super-flu in the present (which is actually the future because it’s set in the near-future) and the black death in the past!

The characters felt a little flimsy at first but rounded out as i continued to read. i realized why this was, instead of introducing characters with a round of exposition- spoon feeding the reader information, Willis just drops them down in front of her readers and lets them walk about. The more time you spend with them the more you get to know them. This was a nice touch, and since the book isn’t a quick read we get to know the characters well over time.

Overall the book was VERY well written. When a character falls ill (or dies) you feel a pang of worry (or grief, dear lord Agnes… makes me misty just thinking about her!) for them. The protagonists are all believable, they are all worthy of the term hero in some fashion and some are down-right saintly. Father Roche is an admirable picture of devotion (both to his faith and those he serves), Rosamund seems insufferable until we learn the story behind her short tempers and our hearts turn towards her, and Kivrin is one of the best female protagonists i’ve read in a while. We walk with Kivrin as she keeps digging deeper and deeper into herself and finds strength upon strength in an overwhelming situation! (Collin also gets a solid thumbs-up from me. When we first meet him he annoyed me to no end, but by the end of the book i was solidly in his corner!)

Super Kudos for making the Black Death feel heavy and meaningful through this work of fiction. Not an easy task for something that happened nearly 700 years ago. Those historical tragedies tend to get classified as “historical” and viewed through the lens of boring text-book prose.

For me this book was an A-    i would recommend it strongly!

A bad day on the bike…

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Set out Sunday morning to bag an epic climb here in central Virginia: Thunder Ridge!

i’ve done it many times before… on my road bike. Sunday was the day to make it happen on two fat tires! The off-road climb to the top of the longest continuous climb on the Blue Ridge Parkway in The Old Dominion!

i met up with some friends, unloaded my bike and noticed… the rear wheel was out of true! What the heck? How have i not noticed this before. i started checking spoke-tension and found to my dismay: a broken spoke! This went from inconvenient and annoying to an actual problem!

It’s mostly gravel, fire-roads, and double-track so i figured i’d roll the dice and make the ride. My compatriots, who were serving as guides as i didn’t know the route, assured me that the only serious section of single-track was on the way back down. Risk was now solidly in the acceptable zone for me! We loaded up and rolled out.

The weather was perfect. The route proved to be gorgeous. Conversation was entertaining. Oh, and my allergies were kicking my asthma! i’d meant to take a couple of hits off the ole inhaler before leaving, maybe taking it with me but i remembered all of this a couple of miles in… Oh well, cost-effective altitude training maybe?

Soon we were up an over the first climb of the day (the smaller one) and my rear brake started acting up. It wasn’t long before it was really compromised. i stopped on a long gravel road descent and did some trail-side adjustments. Not long after that we rolled onto the foot of the big climb for the day. 3000+feet of elevation gain to go! (after bagging about 1400 feet already)

i like climbing. The rhythmic suffering of it. It’s very “blue-collar”, just keep spinning the pedals, just keep sweating, find that edge you can push yourself to and keep chunking the coal into the burner to keep yourself there. This was the moment i had been looking forward to for days!

This epic climb started out alright. The grades felt a little steeper than they looked, but sometimes that’s just cycling! Just keep pedaling… Just keep spinning… chunk the coal in that internal motor…

But i was fading. Fading hard. It wasn’t until we were about 3/4 of the way up this miles-long climb that i started to get suspicious. We hit a little down-hill and everyone else zipped away as i had to dig hard just to keep my speed up. i stopped, hopped off my machine, and gave the rear wheel a spin. It made about a revolution and a half and slowed to a stop… The rear brake was dragging. After some fiddling drastic measures were taken. i removed the rear brake and started pedaling, i was a free man! i could climb again!

Well, i could climb again for about 10 minutes, then the fatigue from riding with a sticky brake for the majority of this massive climb really set in. i was toast. My legs were done. But there i was in the wilderness, no idea where trails go. My friends had their own aspirations for a great day on their bikes just like i had when i awoke that morning. So i sucked it up and limped up the mountain. Made it to the top of Apple Orchard (leg cramps and all).

Shortly after we had a pow-wow and i had to admit (tail tucked and shame-faced) that i was cooked… i felt like i had let them down. One of them kindly volunteered to serve as my guide back down the unfamiliar trails and to the cars. i’ll be in his debt for quite some time.

So here’s the thing that really cheeses me the most: It was ALL MY FAULT! i had not properly maintained my bike and it had cost not just me, but friends of mine as well.

Lessons learned? Take care of my crap (this is a lesson i keep “re-learning” in life). My inactions didn’t just affect me, they had an effect on my friends (who had graciously extended the invitation to roll out on this epic route with them).

On a positive note: it was still time on the bike. Bad rides are better than no rides! And the views i saw, the trails i experienced, and the graciousness of my friends were all things that were beautiful in their own ways.