Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Scores of the Space Race

I work for NASA now, so my interest in this sort of book is obvious. Even before I landed this job though, I enjoyed Apollo-era tales of engineering derring-do. Both Flight: My Life in Mission Control and the better known Failure is Not an Option by Gene Kranz tell the story of the pre-Space Shuttle space program from the perspective of mission operations and system engineers. In the Apollo era, like no other, engineers were heroes right up there with the astronauts. (Chris Kraft, the author of Flight, even got his picture on the cover of Time magazine!)

So I'd always been curious about the fact that, while Failure is commonly available at NASA gift shops, Flight is nowhere to be seen. I finally used a birthday gift certificate to get it from Amazon. Now I understand its absence from NASA vendors. While the story is that of triumphs and set-backs that we're all familiar with, Kraft has no interest in keeping his opinions under wraps. He thinks that it's a travesty that we are, today, still dorking around in low earth orbit instead of doing something more ambitious. He lashes out both at NASA leadership and the American public as a whole. He opens the book describing how much he wishes he'd punched Wernher von Braun in the face. He talks about the differing mission objectives that were proposed before Kennedy gave his "We choose to go to the Moon" speech (Kraft says at the time he preferred the idea of building a space station before going to the Moon). He is unequivocal in his respect and admiration of Bob Gilruth, and is annoyed that the man hasn't gotten more credit. Gilruth was one of the higher-level administrators who made the Apollo project possible. Apparently, as well as being a top-notch engineer himself, he was one of those rare folks who could also lead/manage top-notch engineering teams. Instead of having a space center named after him, like Kennedy, Johnson, Glenn and Goddard have, he's just got a building on the JSC campus, the Gilruth Center. Basically, Kraft has no intention of holding back on NASA's account, and it shows.

Other than that it is similar to Kranz's book. It goes through all the missions, all the advances and set backs. It talks about the astronauts and how they handled different situations. As expected, Kraft is much harsher on some of them than Kranz is. The story has some biographical details in it, but it's obvious that one's personal life is completely sacrificed once one is in a position of that much authority (Flight Director) on a high-pressure project like Apollo. Kraft doesn't talk about the specific engineering as much, since he'd gotten promoted away from the day-to-day tech problems relatively early, but he's got more insight into the power struggles occurring amongst the NASA suits and the various political forces involved. I felt that he had a better handle on the aftermath of the tragic Apollo 1 fire.

Overall I'd say that Kranz's book is a bit better written, and probably better for someone who simply wants an insider perspective into the ground forces that enable astronauts to fly. Kraft's book has a little more score-settling, and in that way can be quite entertaining. It also gives a slightly different perspective on the program as a whole, as opposed to the mission-by-mission details. But it still tells the story of a time when engineers were heroes who made the whole world sit up and take notice. One can't help but look back wistfully on that decade, compare it to what we deal with today, and sigh.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Nightmare & Fantasy, of the Most Mundane Sort

I read The Man Who Was Thursday right after finishing the epic slog that was The Night Land. Reading it was like going on a pleasant stroll with helium balloons tied on after finishing a grueling marathon weighed down by lead weights. Chesterton's prose is effervescent and effortless. It was a joy to read.

Based purely on plot this book might be called a spy thriller, but it's really nothing of the sort. The main character is a policeman (taking the identity 'Thursday') infiltrating a cell of international anarchists, and his key question revolves around the identities of those around him; who are friends (other police informants) and who are foes (real anarchists)? The answer will become obvious fairly early on to the attentive reader, who will then have a completely different burning question: what is the motivation of the man named Sunday? After finishing the (fairly short) novel, I felt like the answer was in there somewhere but that I had missed it somehow. The ending becomes rather surreal (I would compare it to Zoran Živković's The Bridge, which is the most recent surrealist tale I've read), and I felt (as I generally do with surrealism) that it went over my head. Still, I definitely want to read it again in a few years, to get a different perspective on it. It stands well with those novels that will reward second readings.

I had previously read a collection of Chesterton short stories, and this novel continues a pattern I'd noted in those stories: generally speaking, Chesterton doesn't write about things that are impossible or fantastic. However, the way he writes, his style, casts everything in a light of fantasy. He can describe perfectly mundane scenes in a way that makes them seem as exotic as Alice's Wonderland.
When Syme [Thursday] stepped out on to the steam-tub he had a singular sensation of stepping out into something entirely new; not merely into the landscape of a new land, but even into the landscape of a new planet. This was mainly due to the insane yet solid decision of that evening, though partly also to an entire change in the weather and the sky since he entered the little tavern some two hours before. Every trace of the passionate plumage of the cloudy sunset had been swept away, and a naked moon stood in a naked sky. The moon was so strong and full that (by a paradox often to be noticed) it seemed like a weaker sun. It gave, not the sense of bright moonshine, but rather of a dead daylight.
There is a perfect example in Thursday in the way he describes a man wearing dark glasses, and I think that this scene probably inspired Neil Gaiman's creation of the nightmare Corinthian in Sandman.
There was nothing whatever odd about him, except that he wore a pair of dark, almost opaque spectacles. It may have been merely a crescendo of nervous fancy that had gone before, but those black discs were dreadful to Syme; they reminded him of half-remembered ugly tales, of some story about pennies being put on the eyes of the dead. Syme's eye always caught the black glasses and the blind grin. Had the dying Professor worn them, or even the pale Secretary, they would have been appropriate. But on the younger and grosser man they seemed only an enigma. They took away the key of the face. You could not tell what his smile or his gravity meant. Partly from this, and partly because he had a vulgar virility wanting in most of the others it seemed to Syme that he might be the wickedest of all those wicked men. Syme even had the thought that his eyes might be covered up because they were too frightful to see.
Neil Gaiman is one of the reasons I picked up Chesterton; he name-drops the man and his works often throughout Sandman, and cites him as an influence in many interviews. Again, reading Chesterton you get a glimmer of Gaiman's approach to the fantastic, and esepcially how the fantastic and the mundane co-exist, something Gaiman makes explicit in works like Neverwhere. Chesterton's works generally, and The Man Who Was Thursday specifically, hold up very well over time. Even as their immediate subject matter fades into history, the prose style and general attitude continue to enchant.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Mirror, Dark & Fantastic

2009 is finally drawing to a close, and good riddance to it! Too many very low lows, with one great big high high do not average out to a good year! If I could have one wish for 2010, it would be summed up in the word "moderate." As you can see from the state of this blog, writing was one of the first things to be sacrified to the meat grinder of full-time employment + finishing my MSEE. Since I have a month off here between semesters, I'll be posting some short reviews of books I read this fall but didn't get around to reviewing. Aside from that, I can't promise that 2010 will be much better. My New Year's Resolution will be to start saying "No!" to new and wonderful opportunities that come my way. Finishing school has to be the number one priority for my free time. Here's to getting back into the world for real and for good in 2011!

In the meantime, enjoy some short-ish reviews, starting with the latest Mieville.

China Mieville's much talked about 2009 novel, The City & The City has an unusual central conceit. Besides that, it is a straight work-through of the implications: what if two cities could co-exist in a shared space, such that people walking in their own city must "unsee" the other city that they are also walking through? Specifically, how does that shed light on how we live in our world? Mieville uses a murder mystery as the plot and noir as the style to walk us through this world.

I had little trouble accepting the dual cities--although I accepted it on fantastic terms. In other words, I don't think it could work in our world without some sort of fantastical or magical intervention, no matter how quietly it must be happening in the background (no magic was directly invoked in the text, and it was only barely implied). But with that mental reading-between-the-lines, I was able to relax and enjoy the book. I liked the world-building quite a bit, especially as it reflected on the mental filters that we all wear to get through the day. In these cities, the detective must avoid seeing the storefronts and smelling the restaurants of the other city; in modern cities people walking to white collar jobs avoid seeing the homeless huddled around subway grates. In the book Mieville brings up the comparison to more mundanely divided cities: East & West Berlin, Jersusalem, etc. and the narrator explicitly rejects that comparison. I'm still not sure that's not a red herring meant to draw attention to those divided cities; certainly the different-yet-parallel cities experienced by those of different class strata seems a more natural target for this metaphor.

However, as a story I had more reservations: I didn't enjoy the noir-styled, spare narration. It didn't flow for me. I found it grating and annoying because of its staccato nature. I much preferred the narrative voice that Mieville used in the Bas-Lag novels (which I loved, with The Scar being my favorite). I'm actually dreading starting Jeff VanderMeer's Finch because I hear it uses a similar style, no matter how much I've loved the other Ambergris novels.

The central murder mystery was tolerably engaging, but was often pushed into the background by the world-building. I was OK with that narrative choice. My biggest reservation with the book came from the ending: without giving too much away, I felt that Mieville goes back to his political touchstones for his bad guys without justifying their inclusion in the plot. The ending seemed to come from left field without being adequately set up in the rest of the narrative. On the other hand, the character and career trajectory of the narrator in his world worked out smoothly and naturally.

Overall, I felt that The City & The City was an uneven novel, even when the reader can completely suspend disbelief in regards to the central conceit. Nonetheless, it raises a thought-provoking mirror to our world today in a way that's more immediate than the more surreal and lyrical Bas-Lag novels.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Review & Opportunity

First off, I've got a new review up at SFSignal. Daryl Gregory's second novel, The Devil's Alphabet, came out a couple of weeks ago. I think there will also be an interview with him posted today. I wasn't able to cram in everything I thought about this book into this review; amongst points I left out were the David Bowie shout-outs, the rather subtle approaches to current political issues, and the admirable eschewing of clear villains. I hope you'll enjoy both the review and the book, I'm rather fond of both of them.

Second news item: I'm stepping down from slush reading at Strange Horizons as of 2010. It's not for lack of interest, it's just for lack of time. It turned out that juggling a new full-time job, finishing my MSEE and writing/reviewing/reading was simply too much. Specifically, my school work suffered, and that's not acceptable. So I'll be giving it up in 2010. I'm sad about this, because I enjoyed it quite a bit. I got to see what authors are doing in the absence of editorial filtering. I became expert in spotting specific mistakes made by short story writers. I learned a lot about story structure, characterization, prose style and plotting. I'm hoping to be able to go back to it in 2011, when I'm done with my Master's. In the meantime I'll keep on doing some behind-the-scenes editor work for them, so I'm definitely not burning any bridges.

However, all this means that they need new editorial assistants! They've posted a job listing, and I'd encourage nascent writers, editors and critics to apply. You'll learn a lot, and the creativity of submissions never fails to amaze. Please take a look, and spread the word!