The Martian

20160912_the_martian

One sure aspect about The Martian is that it is gripping. Edge-of-the-seat gripping. I started reading it while waiting for the bus. I was hooked! Pages kept turning briskly on the way home in the bus, through dinner, all the way through the night until dawn. Took a few hours of sleep and then soldiered on until its happy and predictable ending.

Written by Andy Weir, a programmer by profession, this book got popular quickly and was made into a movie starring Matt Damon last year. Like pulp thrillers, it is very easy to read and the pace is fast. The year is 2035 and humans have walked on Mars thanks to a couple of Ares missions by NASA. Things go wrong during the Ares 3 mission and the crew aborts its stay on the red planet and escapes. Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead and left behind, but he is not. He makes his way safely back to their dome called Hab. There is ample food, air and power for him to stay inside the Hab for a year. Turns out he is a smart ass botanist and engineer and he figures out how to grow potatoes and make water and survive longer. However, the next Ares mission is 4 years away and Mars starts throwing a spanner into his plans mere days into his stay there.

Weir packs his pages full of ingenious solutions and techniques for his astronaut to survive. Every other page is littered with calculations resembling those statement problems we had in school with Mark computing his chances with this or that solution. All of this lends a strong aura of believability to the preposterous plot. It is quite mind boggling how much of basic math and science can be used when in crisis to fix problems. This book is essentially Apollo 13, but on a gigantic scale and with the mind of a brilliant engineer at work. It is hard not to root for this tiny human unflaggingly taking on the problems thrown by an entire planet at him. He has to literally make air, water and food to survive for years on a planet that offers none of them. How can you resist this yarn?

The biggest letdown of this engaging book however was its writing, which is sadly just mediocre. An American teen vibe pervades all the conversations. I can guess that Hollywood screenwriters had very little work converting this into a blockbuster script. Man has reached Mars and these adult astronauts talk about jocks and geeks and wedgies! You get the idea. Make no mistake, the science chops are very strong in this book, every ludicrous plan is meticulously backed by reasoning and the book is quite unputdownable. However, one does feel that a simple writing workshop for the author could have vaulted the book further into greatness.

Rating: 3/4

ISBN: 9780804139021

Neuromancer

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Concepts and visuals from movies such as Ghost in the Shell, Inception, Dark City and The Thirteenth Floor kept swirling in my mind as I turned the pages of Neuromancer. Anyone who reads this 1984 sci-fi novel by William Gibson will have no doubt that these movies have borrowed heavily from its ingenious inventions and plot.

The futuristic story begins in a Japan that is right out of Blade Runner. (This movie was released two years before the novel). The protagonist is Case, a former cyberspace hacker who is living out his last days among the dregs of the underworld. Cyberspace here refers to the interconnected worldwide network which a user can navigate by donning a headset and melding their consciousness into an online virtual reality avatar. Hackers can also share the consciousness of another cyberspace user, if allowed. Things start looking up for Case when a mysterious benefactor named Armitage and his female bodyguard Molly help regain his old powers in exchange for his hacking services. As Case starts to finish his assigned nefarious tasks one by one he realizes that he and his team are being guided and controlled by an enormously powerful artificial intelligence (AI) named Wintermute. He must figure out who Wintermute is fighting and why.

This slim novel comes loaded with acclaim. It is said to be the cyberpunk novel and is credited with introducing the word cyberspace. In my opinion, the entire plot and visuals of The Matrix movies have been literally lifted from this book. Even in 2015, the ideas and the vision in this work stand tall! However, I felt that the storytelling itself was quite weak.

I loved the first part which introduces its sleazy dystopian world. The hacking adventure that follows is lackluster. The problem is not the plot, which is incredibly beautiful, as I discovered on reading it on Wikipedia after I finished the book. The vision in Gibson’s mind just does not materialize through his muddled descriptions and conversations. Neuromancer is a short and quick read, filled with an imagination that is epic and a writing that is not.

Rating: 3/4

ISBN: 0441569595

Excerpt:

“The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games,” said the voice-over, “in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks.” […] “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts … A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.”

2001: A Space Odyssey (Novel)

I had been wowed by the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey a few years ago. It is undoubtedly one of the greatest movie experiences and possibly the most accessible work of Stanley Kubrick. Not having read any science-fiction in recent months, I picked up the source of the movie, the novel of the same name written by Arthur C. Clarke. Both the movie and the novel are based off a few short stories of Clarke, written earlier. Both were created at the same time, with ideas being exchanged between Clarke and Kubrick to expand on those stories into a movie and a novel. To bring a sense of perspective, these works were created in 1968. Armstrong and Aldrin saw the movie and then stepped on the moon next year.

The novel follows the movie very closely, with four parts. In the first part, a black monolith appears in an African valley at the beginning of, what is now called, the Pleistocene age, the age of human evolution. It guides a tribe of man-apes in wielding tools to magnify their strength and thus making it easier to kill other dominant animals. In the second part, we take a journey to the Moon where a similar monolith has been discovered beneath a crater. When revealed and exposed to the Sun it emits a strong radio signal across the Solar System aimed at Japetus, a moon of Saturn. In the third part, five astronomers are on a long journey to Saturn with the complex controls of their ship being controlled by a computer named HAL 9000. One astronomer survives the perils of the journey and in part four he discovers the secret of the monolith.

I have read collections of short stories by Clarke before and here he is no different. His writing is easy and quick to read, though the worlds he creates are no less fantastic. He has a knack for creating plausible artifacts and experiences that seem just a few years away from our current time. The writing in the novel is beautiful, with some sections a pure joy to taste and linger. Though the HAL 9000 episode is thrilling to read, it is actually the section that is most unrelated to the main theme of the book. Much like the movie, the weakest section is the end which gets more nebulous the deeper you get into it. Needless to say that Kubrick though has recreated Clarke’s vision to perfection in the movie. It is hard not to recommend 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a mind-bending fantastic journey that is surprisingly easy and quick to make right from your armchair.

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 9780451457998

Alien

Back in the good (?) old days when Star Movies was new in India, they had a small basket of movies which they cycled through over and over again. Alien, the first movie of the Alien series, was one of them. I have seen this movie innumerable times on Star Movies, but always in bits and pieces, since my process would typically be preempted to give up the TV resource to a higher priority process in the family. 😉

Alien is a sci-fi horror movie, the intelligent kind where the scares and thrills come mostly from the dark imagination of your own mind. It starts off on Nostromo, a spaceship that is lugging ore from a distant planet to Earth. The crew is woken up from their deep sleep and asked to investigate a beacon from a nearby planet. They discover the remains of a giant spaceship there and inside it, the eggs of an alien being. One of the eggs hatches and the crab-like alien from it attacks the crew. They leave in their ship hastily, but their efforts to kill the alien on their ship gets scarier as it evades, kills and grows.

For a movie from 1979, Alien looks gorgeous even today. The grandeur of the alien nest is jaw-dropping and the white-red interiors of Nostromo are a joy to watch. The alien creature itself is quite something indescribable, like something fused from the elements of many horrible dreams. The plot is just a slasher in space, but director Ridley Scott and the writers have eked out a sophisticated creation from it. The Alien script was involved in quite a bit of wrangling by its studio and I did not really like the robot character that was thus introduced into it. The casting is perfect, and the young Sigourney Weaver is a delight. There is a comfort in watching good movies over and over again. I know I will be watching Alien sometime again for its fun ride.

Avatar

Rating: 3/4 (Avatar is an alien world from the mind of James Cameron that should be experienced.)

I have been extremely late in catching up with this year’s mega blockbuster Avatar. James Cameron returns from a long vacation with a fantastic new world that has the potential to be another Star Wars series.

The story takes place on a planet called Pandora, which the humans from Earth are mining for a metal called Unobtainium (sic). In this metal quest, the humans have run afoul of the Na’vi, the natives of Pandora. New recruit Jake Scully is added to a secret research project which has perfected a way to clone Na’vi bodies and control them using telekinesis. Jake takes on his Na’vi form and starts mingling with the Na’vi tribes to gain their trust and learn their secrets. Soon he is falling in love with Neytiri, the daughter of the Na’vi chief and takes their side. As expected, the lure of Unobtainium pushes the company to use military force on the Na’vi, pitting Jake against them in an epic battle.

Avatar is a treat to watch and experience! The world of Pandora itself is fantastic, James Cameron has convincingly created an alien planet full of strange creatures and plants. Shot in stereo, it looks nothing like the other movies claiming to be 3D this year. Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver have acted well. The facial expressions of the Na’vi have been brought to screen very realistically. Despite all this, the movie gets very predictable in the second half, and the long battle does not help. Avatar is an alien world that should to be experienced.

Inception

Rating: 3/4 (Minus the needless action and complexity, Inception is the stuff dreams are made of!)

Christopher Nolan returns after The Dark Knight to the much darker, deeper domain of the mind in Inception. The hero Cobb (Leonard di Caprio), a dream thief, is given his life’s mission when he is asked to plant an idea in the mind of Fischer, heir to a business empire. In true Hollywood fashion, Cobb assembles a team which includes his employer (Ken Watanabe), an architect, a point man, a forger, and a chemist. These diverse roles are needed for the Nolan vision of a dream heist. Ariadne (Ellen Page), the architect, builds the worlds of the dreams. The dreamer will dream the dream and the rest of the team and the victim will join it. The forger will shift his identity, taking on different characters in the dream. Cobb, the extractor, will steal or implant information in the dream of the victim. Cobb, who had only stolen from dreams up to this point is required to try inception, planting an idea in the victim for the first time. To achieve this he creates 3 levels of dreams, a dream within a dream within a dream. Only with such deception can the victim’s mind be fooled into accepting a foreign idea. It sounds complicated, but thanks to Nolan’s vision, the team achieve it. Things go south, when the demons of Cobb’s past return in his dream and he enters limbo, a dream of no return.

The concept of Inception is extremely interesting and Nolan pulls it off pretty well. He borrows generously from movies like The Matrix, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The dream worlds of Paris folding over, the dilapidated Limbo Land and the zero gravity Hotel are fantastic to experience! In contrast, the City Streets and Ice World look useless and seemed to serve only as arenas to throw in some mindless shooting and action. Nolan extracts great acting chops from Leonardo di Caprio, who is getting awesomer with every movie. Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are memorable, but Michael Caine is wasted with his tiny role. The movie gets a bit hard to understand with so many levels of dreams. It is one or two too many, since Nolan could have told a clearer, more focused story with less. The ending is perfect, in the sense that the audience is left wondering if Cobb is still stuck in a dream or it happened for real. Despite its mindless action and unnecessary complexity, Inception is still the most interesting movie this year.

Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen

Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen

[ Trailer ]

Rating: 1/4 (I will pay you to avoid this torture)

Dear Michael Bay,

I know your movies are about mindless action and big explosions. Seen from even that viewpoint your latest movie Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen is a serious disappointment. The first movie Transformers was such good fun, with a teenager (Shia LaBeouf) and his hot girlfriend (Megan Fox), his car which turns into a good robot (Optimus Prime) and a rival badass robot (Megatron). Why did you have to tear apart such a simple premise into shreds with this latest attempt of yours? Did you really have to add in a complete genealogy of Transformers? Did you have to add in so many new Decepticons, all virtually indistinguishable from each other? What daydream were you floating on when you made all the Autobots as GM cars? You have reached a new low with the addition of the two new Autobot Twins, Mudflap and Skids, who are illiterate, act dumb, talk like rappers and squabble all the time. Why did you needlessly crowd the movie with tiny Decepticons which look exactly like Gremlins? And the most ridiculous Decepticon of all, the Pretender humanoid (Isabel Lucas) who wants to bed Shia, is a college dominatrix with a hidden tail and snake-like tongue! Frankly, I would like to know why you hate historical monuments so much? Did your Transformers really need to end up in Egypt and then proceed to smash, explode and tear apart every single priceless monument of humans in the vicinity for an entire hour?

This movie was so excruciating to watch. The viewer has to endure extremely loud explosions and a mess of metal all pulping each other to death for 2.5 hours. I felt like I lived a lifetime sitting there! You added those countless slow-motion shots of Megan Fox running away from explosions for obvious reasons. But, even her ample bosom and physics defying clothes (sadly) do not make this movie any more entertaining. In one word, this movie and every single aspect of it is absurd.

Thanks for your time.