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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Artemis: Silly Sciencey Fun...But Mostly Silly

There's just no way Andy Weir could've been as good as he was in his debut, The Martian. That novel is the most fun I've had with a book in a long, long time. So even though the hype for his follow-up was feverish, you just had to know Artemis wasn't going to be quite as good. And, sadly, it's not. But if you liked Weir's schtick in the The Martian — wisecracking smart ass is also brilliant MacGyver-like sciencey schemer — you'll probably find enough fun here to keep turning the pages

The story, which takes place on the moon, is about Jazz, a spunky woman who makes ends meet by smuggling contraband to rich guys on the moon's first permanent colony, Artemis. One of those guys proposes a big pay day for her if she can sabotage some of a big company's big moon rock harvesters. Of course, things go awry, and Jazz uncovers a plot that goes much deeper than simple corporate espionage and malfeasance.

Weir ranges from legit hilarious to silly and Beavis-ish (which I love!) to just dumb. Part of the silliness in this book is that I'm not sure he's exactly comfortable writing a woman character. Jazz seems less like a woman and more like a geeky dude's ideal robot woman. She talks and thinks like a nerdy virginal dude in his goofy dorky fantasies would hope women think and talk like (but don’t actually ever). Sometimes it's funny, often it's not.

And then the science and "did you know?" stuff ranges from genuinely fascinating to “Huh. Cool story, bro” to WAY-too-in-the-weeds. There's one scene in particular near the end, that, unless you want to know a bunch about pressure valves and the metallurgy of welding, is INTERMINABLE. And that's too bad because that's supposed to be mid-rush-to-the-end of the novel. It's slows it down considerably.

Even so, I was still mostly entertained. It’s an inventive story that probably feels smarter than it actually is. Certainly a step back from The Martian, but how could anyone be that good twice in a row?

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Origin: The Dan Brown Plot Machine Takes On Creation, the Singularity

Where do we come from? Where are we going? When we wrestle with humanity's toughest, deepest, most profound questions, of course we look no further than Dan Brown for guidance and wisdom. Right?

I kid. We look to Dan Brown to distract us for a few hours with a highly improbable though somehow entertaining plot, which includes more than a little unintentionally hilarious "dramatic" writing, and even still a few things that make you go "hmmm..."

In Origin, the Dan Brown Plot Machine's new Robert Langdon vehicle, we meet Edmond Kirsch, a brilliant computer scientist and futurist — think Elon Musk crossed with Steve Jobs, with a pinch of Richard Branson — who has made a stunning discovery which will not only destroy every notion of organized religion, but also will change everything we thought we knew about everything! Where do we come from? Where are we going? ..... And where is the bathroom?

But wait! Before Kirsch can reveal his scientific discovery, he's summarily assassinated mid-presentation at the Guggenheim Museum in Spain. Langdon and the comely museum director, Ambra Vidal, now must find Kirsch's cell phone password to launch his presentation in his stead. LUCKILY, as Kirsch was working with Vidal to prepare his presentation, he let slip that his password is a 47-character line of poetry that includes a prophecy.

So Langdon has a starting point for his treasure hunt. And helping them along the way is Winston, Kirsch's incredibly advanced AI who talks with an urbane British accident (because of course it does) and periodically nudges them along when they hit a roadblock.

But look out! An evil (or is he?) former Spanish naval officer named Admiral Àvila chases them across Spain, trying to kill them. Àvila has been taken in by a right-wing Catholic sect called the Palmarians, a group who hates the new "liberal" advances of the Catholic Church, and so has installed their own pope, and have endeavored to halt any sort of scientific progress.

Will Langdon find the password in time? Will he destroy religion with Kirsch's discovery? And where is that damn bathroom? 

Look, I know it's easy to make fun of Dan Brown — his faux-profound italicized thoughts are so often laughably cheesy, you can't take him too seriously. And he really treats his readers like idiots — he tells us about half a dozen times about Langdon's "eidetic memory." WE GET IT DAN. To enjoy this novel, you really do have to wade through a lot of stupid to get to the good part. But I'll admit I thoroughly enjoyed the last 100 pages here. Even if the framework is nothing new — borrowed ideas Brown packages for his own purposes in improbably silly plot — many of the "fun facts" about architecture, art, religion, science, etc., are still interesting to read about. And there's a genuinely surprising plot twist at the end.

So it's worth trudging through a lot of the dumb. And it's worth pointing out just how dumb that dumb is sometimes. Brown doesn't really seem to have any grasp of technology at all— or he assumes his readers don't (which is more likely). He often has his characters talking about "computer tablets" (as opposed to just tablets) which I realize is a minor complaint, but it's not like we're going to confuse an iPad with the Ten Commandments. And he has one of his characters unlock a locked iPhone with a technique that is laughably stupid — and of course, doesn't really work That that was the point I almost threw the book across the room and quit.

But I soldiered through. While this still doesn't approach the level of The Da Vinci Code — and Origin borrows most from Brown's biggest hit, even referencing it a few times (which he never does in his other books. Like Langdon has his memory erased before each book. So, thank you, Dan for this, at least) — it's still better than Brown's last last two (pretty terrible) novels, Inferno and The Lost Symbol. If you're a fan of Dan Brown's schtick, you'll probably moderately enjoy this. If nothing else, it's often good for an unintentionally meant laugh.