What I’ve been reading lately, part 15

The Martian — Andy Weir (for the second time)

I read this not long ago; but having seen the film in the mean time, I was keen to re-read it. (As I own the paperback, I cheerfully pirated a copy for my Kindle. How do you like them apples?)

the-martian-20th-century-fox

I’m glad I did. Even though I knew what was going to happen at every stage, I enjoyed it just as much this time as I did before. I relish the brutal technicality of Mark Watney’s struggle to survive a year and a half on Mars alone, and I enjoy the leavening of humour, often at the most unexpected points.

I don’t think I know a single person who’s read this that didn’t love it. That includes my wife, my eldest and youngest sons, my brother, colleagues in my programming job, colleagues in my palaeontology avocation, and a professional special-effects artist. It just seems to work for everyone. And so I urge everyone who reads this blog and hasn’t already experienced The Martian to fix that bug.

(I also very much enjoyed the film. It inevitably wound down the technicality a notch or two, and had to cut out a few of the events of the novel to fit into two hours, but it’s absolutely in keeping with the spirit of the book — and it looks heartbreakingly beautiful. I’m keen to see it again.)

Essential The Amazing Spider-Man, Volume 1 — Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, et al.

I started re-reading this volume of low-quality reprints because I wanted to refresh my memory for Andrew Rilstone’s blog series on early Spider-Man. It turned out to be more fascinating than I remembered — not so much because of the individual stories, which vary wildly in quality, but because of the window on the process of creating an icon.

Everyone knows Spider-Man now: the costume, the wall-climbing, the web-shooters, the catchy theme-song, the cast of friends-and-family, the parade of bad-guys. But there is something astonishing about watching all of that (except the song) get put together, in just half a dozen 20-page issues. As though creating Spider-Man himself were not enough, Lee and Ditko, in a frenzy of imagination, also gave us Doctor Octopus, Sandman, Lizard, Electro, Mysterio and the Green Goblin in little more than a year (not to mention a stable of lesser villains, some best forgotten.) It really was the most extraordinary passage of creativity.

And what makes it even more incredible is that the same people were, at the same time, producing Fantastic Four comics every month, and had created The Incredible Hulk only three months before Spidey. Oh, and Thor debuted in the same month as Spider-Man. And Iron Man followed seven months later. The full list is nothing short of astonishing. I honestly don’t think it’s unreasonable to compare this creative explosion in comics with what was happening at the same time in music — driven by the Beatles. Ah, the sixties: what a time to be alive.

Against that backdrop, the earlier Spider-Man comics taken alone are strange affairs, only really nuzzling up to the character we know and love — and sometimes pitted against woefully inadequate foes. But, hey, go and read Andrew Rilstone’s analysis. It’s fascinating.

The Eyre Affair — Jasper Fforde

An amusing book built on a fascinating premise — a slightly different version of our world where lots of details are different but the big one is that literature, rather then pop music or sport, is reverenced in popular culture. Everyone loves the novels of Jane Austen; everyone has an opinion on the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. In this world we meet the thirty-something literature detective Thursday Next, separated by ten years from her ex-fiance and drawn into events that begin with the theft of the original Martin Chuzzlewit manuscript and finish with her pursuing the thief into the world of Jane Eyre.

The ideas are lovely, much of the writing is good (often with something of a Douglas Adams quality) and the core story in interesting. Yet somehow the whole is less than the sum of the parts. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. But there was enough about it that I was left wanting to read the sequel.

The Silkworm — Robert Galbraith

The second of the three (so far) Cormoran Strike mysteries, and the one I caught up with last. Like the other two, it’s very well put together, engaging and clever. You might not want to call it literature, exactly, but I don’t care too much about that, and neither will J. K. Give me something I enjoy reading over something worthy any day.

The Regatta Mystery and other stories — Agatha Christie

I struggled with this one, although I generally prefer Christie’s short-story collections over her novels, because my copy was a very poor scan with all sorts of errors, repetitions, misformattings and so on. I think it was, otherwise, pretty much on a par with the bulk of her other work.

The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies — Beatrix Potter

Short, and not particularly sweet. I read it because it comes up in the second of the Thursday Next novels (see below), and I wondered if it had hidden depths. Nope.

ESSENTIAL THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, VOLUME 2 — STAN LEE, STEVE DITKO, ET AL.

More of the same — see above. There’s less to hold the casual reader once the novelty has worn off, but these are still compelling tales. If I’d had volume 3 to hand, I would have gone straight on to it. Instead, having only the first two volumes, I went to …

Essential The Incredible Hulk, volume 1 — Stan Lee et al.

This might be even more fascinating than the Spider-Man reprints. They are, objectively, not as good. But the process is endlessly interesting, because while Spider-Man leapt straight out of the brains of Lee and Ditko, more or less fully formed, it took them a good long while to figure out what the Hulk was going to be.

At the most basic, famously, he was initially grey, and turned out green due to a printing error. But everything about how the Hulk works was different early on. At first, Bruce Banner turned into the Hulk at night, and back into Banner during the day. For a while, he could be mind-controlled by his teenaged friend Rick Jones. Both these aspects were quietly discarded early on, without ever being explained away, and for a while the Hulk/Banner change was controlled by a gamma-ray machine in a hidden cave. During this period the Hulk was a lot more intelligent than the way we think of him now. Once the machine had been quietly dropped (also without explanation), we found that elevated moods (anger, stress, fear) transformed Banner to Hulk — but also transformed Hulk back to Banner. Only some way in do we reach the now-canonical arrangement where Hulk transforms back to Banner when his anger fades.

With all this constant change in how the character works, it’s hardly a surprise that the early issues of The Incredible Hulk are a mess. Toss in the strangely chosen enemies (a Russian spy, alien toad-men, a subterranean emperor) and the demise of the original Hulk comic after only six issues doesn’t seem too unreasonable. But something about the character worked well enough that he soon started appearing as one of the two strips in Tales To Astonish, and making popular guest appearances in other comics. I’d have read on to volume 2 of the collected strips if I had it.

Lost in a Good Book — Jasper Fforde

The sequel to The Eyre Affair, and it held me rather better, even though my favourite part of the original book — the alternative 1980s Britain — was much less in evidence. This time, Thursday spends much more of her time in novels.

2 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 15

  1. From the Computer Science perspective, I just loved the part in the Martian where he figures out how to send characters back and forth to Earth and they send him the code to patch the rover so he can communicate to them via it. Ingenious, real stuff there….

  2. Yes, that was a particularly lovely part of the story, and had a lot of resonance with the story (which irritating I now can’t find) of the coders on one of the 1970s space probes who found they had a few spare bytes, shoved in a pattern-matching algorithm, and had the probe discover a new comet. (Does anyone remember the details or have a link to the canonical story?)

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