Monday, August 31, 2015

August Reads – Part 2, Comfort Zone

Some recreation is pleasant. All three of these novels are as hard to put down as they are easy to pick up.

The Martian by Andy Weir

Perhaps you have seen the trailers for The Martian, a film due to be released in 2015. If you read the novel by Andy Weir, you’ll know why the studios bid for it. Mark Watney is stranded on Mars and must find a way to survive until the next Mars mission. He needs more skills than MacGyver to do it. Nor is this just about Watney. There are the people back on earth and the crew of the ship that left him behind. This is hard science fiction done right, and you don’t have to be an SF fan to like it.

Wool by Hugh Howey

Even though e-book sales are way up, total book sales – including e-books – have continued their long decline in the US; print sales have plummeted. Accordingly, it is harder than ever to catch the interest of a traditional publisher. Each of the major publishers typically receives 10,000 unsolicited manuscripts per month and rejects nearly all of them. More than ever they prefer to stick with established authors with guaranteed sales. For unknown authors the odds of a new title ever selling more than a few hundred copies are tiny.

So, it is always pleasant to see someone break out against the odds. Erika Leonard’s Fifty Shades trilogy originally was self-published as was (less dramatically but still successfully) David Wong’s John Dies at the End and, for that matter, Andy Weir's The Martian. All found traditional publishers after sales took off, of course. Hugh Howey has joined their company with the originally self-published Wool.

You might think you have had enough of post-apocalyptic novels, but Howey shows there is still life in the genre. Perhaps you have heard of decommissioned missile silos converted into underground condos for those expecting the end of civilization in their lifetimes – yes, they are a real thing. Wool is set inside a silo where survivors struggle to…well…survive until the world outside becomes less toxic. If that environment sounds claustrophobic, for many of the residents it is. The tale, focusing on a technician named Juliette who to her puzzlement is appointed sheriff, is surprisingly exciting. Politics below the surface remain as disruptive as they ever were above. By the end of the novel we learn a dark secret that sets us up for a sequel. I’m looking forward to it.

The Judgment of Paris by Gore Vidal

As of last month I had read 21 of Gore Vidal’s 26 novels and short story collections, including two of the five detective novels he wrote under a pseudonym, plus a large proportion of his essays, dramas, and screenplays. You might suspect I enjoy his work – and you’d be right.

Some teachers of creative writing are honest enough to say (despairingly) that they help only at the margins – a grammar correction here and some advice on plotting techniques there. Fundamentally, students who are good writers are good when they start the class and the rest don’t get appreciably better. Writers do evolve, but for the most part they do so on their own by writing and then judging their own work. (Some judge so harshly that they stop writing.) Hence the old saying “the first million words don’t count.” Gore Vidal was a good writer from the start, and his very first novel Williwaw, written in 1944 at age 19, is still considered one of the better war novels to come out of World War 2. Yet he himself said in later years that “I didn’t find my voice" until The Judgment of Paris, written in 1950 and published in 1952.

This was one of the Vidal novels I had missed, and it is out of print. So, when a third-party seller listed a first edition hardcover on Amazon for $7.00 a few weeks ago I clicked “Add to Cart.”

The Judgment of Paris is a literary novel of the sort rarer today than it once was. Philip, a young man of secure but not lavish means, spends a year in Europe and Egypt after the war. His goal is partly just to experience more of the world than his home on the Hudson in upstate New York, and partly to find his own direction and sense of self. Three women influence that direction by their arrival in his life and by their different philosophies: Regina Durham, Sophia Oliver, and Anna Morris. One doesn’t need to be much of a classical scholar to see the allusion and to guess where this is going. Philip must make a choice in the end, as we all must do – not of a partner, since it is unlikely he’ll see any of the three again after returning home, but of his own values.

This is an intellectual novel in the best sense, and it is beautifully written. The young Gore did indeed find his voice.


  1. Do you like to read the books before the movie or does it matter? In most cases I do, but with Dune it helped to understand the movie better and expanded that universe as well. Both The Martian and Wool (odd title, does it refer to anything?) sound like interesting reads. I've already seen a trailer for The Martian and it looked like it would be interesting, hopefully it won't disappoint its fans. I'm looking forward to it.

    If you want to see a weird video on underground missile silos check out this vid:

  2. Odd that we can find the post-apocalypse comforting, but I know what you mean. Here's a list of some more books in that vein:

    1. As for the title "Wool," according to Howey himself, “it held a hidden meaning … (the wool being pulled over Holston’s eyes).” Holston is the sheriff who is replaced by Juliette early in the book; his visor is manipulated into giving false images of the outside. To Howey's credit, he leads you to jump to a conclusion about what the secret is, but it is really something else.

      Yes, I usually like to read the book first. As you say it usually gives you a deeper understanding; that more than makes up for the spoilers. Sometimes it is fun to see where the movie deviates from the book, as in the "Kick-Ass" movies for which the producers obviously said to themselves, "Uh, no, that's TOO much."

      Thanks for the links. I've read several of them, and the others are good recommendations. I strongly recommend "Earth Abides," btw. Don't be put off by the 1949 publication date. It is still one of the best. The post apocalypse can be strangely uplifting -- even after the worst happens there is hope. Not always though. In "On the Beach" everyone dies; the book and movie are old enough and well-known enough that I don't think that's a spoiler.

      Maybe the apocalypse attracts and frightens us a metaphor for our own personal decay and death -- almost a graveyard humor akin to our enjoyment of Halloween. I thought something like that when writing my own youthful novel "Slog," but we often delude ourselves about our own motives, so maybe that was just a rationalization.