Em oi! #427: Media Is Misfortune


I cut this up into panels for easier viewing. Click here to view the original.
A few notes and sources:

  1. Chomsky didn’t develop this theory (properly called the “propaganda model”) alone–he co-wrote the book with Edward Herman. Wikipedia suggests that the theory was more Herman’s than Chomsky’s, but everyone seems to call it Chomsky’s theory. Here is a video that explains it in more depth than one panel of a comic can do. As a (former, I guess) southeast Asianist, I have mixed feelings about Chomsky…he seems to be generally accepted on this point, but he was so, so wrong about a number of things (specifically, the Khmer Rouge)…
  2. Here is the main interview with Zizek that I referenced. I do enjoy the contrast between the well-dressed BBC host and the Ziz, who always looks like he has been awake for about 43 hours and hasn’t done laundry in a week.
  3. Foucault’s stuff about the power structure and revolution was touched on in this earlier comic.
  4. Fitzgerald has a weird face. Sorry, dude. Of all the real people I’ve tried to draw, he is the weirdest. And this is including J-P “Walleye” Sartre.
  5. Chomsky and Foucault didn’t get along either.

Chomsky was, (possibly) surprisingly, on the side of Hillary Clinton during the last election, while Zizek wanted people to vote for Trump–not because he supported Trump; in fact, he views DT as immoral and terrible, in many ways a total disaster. But he believed that by electing DT, the left would see some galvanization and would begin to reconstruct itself, not just to offer opposition but to offer a viable alternative that did not include neoliberalism/late-stage international capitalism/what have you. Interestingly, I think he was right to some extent. I knew a few people involved in local activism while Obama was in office, but I now know many, many more people who are calling their senators and congresspeople regularly, going to rallies, and actively supporting various campaigns to change the country for the better.

As I’m writing this, however, DT has pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord.* What this will actually mean for the world in the long run is difficult to say at this juncture, since it was a largely symbolic voluntary agreement that many (well, Honduras Nicaragua [ed: damn it]) claimed didn’t go far enough. But I do think that without the governmental impetus, the solution to global warming will wind up coming from the business community–that capitalism will eventually have to save us. If the idiotic old men in power can’t see the writing on the wall, the entrepreneurs can, and in this country money speaks a lot louder than treaty obligations. Which is ironic, because I think that the revolution Zizek had in mind was not essentially the renaissance of cultural capitalism in the role of savior, but (of course) socialism (“the good old welfare state,” as he would put it). To paraphrase Oscar Wilde (or, really Ziz quoting Wilde in the video linked just there), it feels like a bad idea to use private industry to lead the mitigation of the environmental disaster caused by private industry, because their motives will always be profit-driven rather than altruistic, and that means that people not living in the first world are going to wind up getting screwed somehow. On the other hand, as someone who is worried about the environment, I guess I’ll take what I can get at this point?

Circling back to the Ziz’s point about the president as the motive for revolution: the problem is that Trump is a good enemy but ultimately inept. The left doesn’t really have to do anything–they (we) just have to stand there and he’ll turn his administration into a dumpster fire. It’s been less than six months and there’s already been talk of impeachment on the floor of the House by Republicans. Thus, while the base is fired up, the democrats in congress don’t seem to be doing much in the way of providing alternative leadership or pivoting to embrace the more liberal Sanders wing or the multicultural Obama wing–they don’t have to.

And this is where the lack of objectivity I mentioned begins to bother me–rather than seeing any individual action the administration takes as the flailing of an inept and failing regime, the leftermost voices seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on interpreting how this is going to lead to fascism/autocracy/A Handmaid’s Tale/insert your particular fear here. I suppose this is the reverse of Obama, or perhaps more accurately the flip side of it. I discussed a few posts back seeing voters in 2008–especially African American voters, since I was in a heavily African American area of Philly–reconstructing Obama in their own image so that he could serve as a vehicle onto which they could project their ideas/hopes/dreams. Now on the other side, we have the left projecting its fears onto DT–perhaps because of a lack of transparency on his part that keeps him feeling like a remote and unknowable figure, or perhaps because this is how people always deal with their leaders–just as we must imagine that we live in a community filled with others who are basically the same as we are in order to become a nation, we must imagine the same thing about the leader who we will likely never meet in person–that he or she is a specific type of person that either is like us (for those leaders we like) or totally foreign to us (for those we hate).

To provide a possible counter-point to my own point here, I’ll add that while I was sketching out this comic, I found this video on Jacques Lacan,** about whom I know very little (he is widely admired by many of the continental philosophers I mention here, especially Zizek, but not widely discussed in the [undergraduate] philosophy curriculum, possibly because he’s largely still seen as a psychologist? Or because undergrad philosophy is kinda naff in a lot of ways). Anyway, the video quotes Lacan as saying, “What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a new master. And you will get one.” Lacan meant that what people want, from the time of infancy, is basically an “ideal parent,” someone who can make everything okay, and we carry this desire into who we vote for. Whereas it is better, following Sartre’s idea of radical freedom, to accept that no leader is going to be able to do these things, and instead to embrace the fact that if we want something to happen, the best way is to make it happen ourselves. Go out and break glass ceilings, clean up the environment, make art–do what you need to in order to be awesome every day.

We’ll file this under P95.82 U6 L86 2017, for Philology. Linguistics–Communication. Mass media–Special aspects–Political aspects. Policy–By region or country, A-Z. This allows it to sit next to the original being referenced, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media, at least at my alma mater.

Footnotes:
* When I say “pulled out,” it’s not clear how Bloomberg / the individual states and cities saying they’re still going ahead with the Paris Accord requirements plays into this argument. Bloomberg is of course a total centerist neoliberal (and so on and so on).

**  Yes, I watch stuff like that for fun.

Super Belated 2016 Round-Up

Books read:

  • The System of the World, by Neal Stephenson OMG
  • The Two Towers and The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Texts from Jane Eyre, by Mallory Ortberg
  • The Princess and the Pony, by Kate Beaton
  • Cecil, the Pet Glacier, by Matthea Harvey
  • “The White Album,” by Joan Didion
  • Angels in America, by Tony Kushner (reread)
  • Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir, by Roz Chast. Reviewed.
  • Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel. Reviewed.
  • Are You My Mother?, by Alison Bechdel
  • Tomboy, by Liz Prince
  • In the Blood, by Suzan-Lori Parks
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts One and Two, by Jack Thorne, based on a story by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne
  • Alan Mendalsohn: The Boy from Mars, by Daniel Pinkwater
  • Equal Rites, by Terry Pratchett
  • Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett
  • The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett

It got a little escapist there at the end. I should note that this list is somewhat incomplete–it doesn’t contain, for example, several nonfiction reference books I read, nor the three times I re-read HST’s obituary of Richard Nixon.

Best book I read: Probably The System of the World, which is itself the third part of a trilogy. Is it 2,400 pages of fanfiction about Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, and the invention of the calculus? A treatise on globalization and economics? An in-depth look at the difficult political transition between Queen Anne and King George I? A joyful romp around the world with the Royal Society? All of the above? Totally worth reading, whatever it is. Someday I want to meet Neal Stephenson so I can give him a high five.

The 2017 reading list can be found here, and my theater reviews are here.

Races run:

Race Date Distance Time
New Years Day Dash Jan 1 5 mi 39:49
Freeze for Food 5k / 10k Jan 23 5 km / 10 km 26:57 / 49:14
LMR 20k May 7 20 km 1:48:47
Ice Age 50 half marathon May 14 13.1 mi 2:01:23
Blue Mounds 18k June 4 18 km 1:55:24
Dances with Dirt July 9 13.1 mi 2:11:13
Madison Mini Marathon Aug 20 13.1 mi 2:07:22
Safe Harbor Labor Day Dash Sept 5 10 km 55:24
North Face Endurance Challenge Sept 18 13.1 mi 2:18:19
Indian Lake Trail Race Oct 1 12 km 1:07:49
Fall 15k Oct 16 15 km 1:19:17
McCarthy Park Trail Race Oct 30 18 km 1:39:46
Wolf Pack Trail race Nov 13 29 mi 5:29:30
Berbee Derby Nov 24 5 km 36:47

Best finish (in terms of pace): Freeze for Food 10k (7:56 pace); New Years Day Dash (7:58 pace); Fall 15k (8:32 pace)

Best finish (in terms of place): Wolf Pack (2nd woman [of two], 8th overall); Fall 15k (3rd in age group, 4th woman of 27); Freeze for Food 5k/10k (6th in age group in both).

Lessons Learned at the Wolf Pack Trail Run

20161112_074310
At the start.

I ran 29ish miles on Saturday at the Wolf Pack Trail Run. 29.28 according to my watch. When I signed up, I thought the race would be 28 miles–it was billed as two 14-mile loops, but there was some overlap between the loops and some extra so it worked out weird. It took about five and a half hours. I was the eighth finisher overall out of fourteen. I was also the second woman finisher…out of two. There were several other women who started the race but dropped out (at least three, possibly more). So really, I was one of only two female finishers. That’s not bad, right?

Here are some things I learned during this time:

  1. Miniature Snickers bars are better than miniature Three Musketeers. Potato chips are not as good as boiled potatoes dipped in salt. Hammer makes a peanut butter gel that is kind of gross–definitely inferior to the GU gel.
  2. I should eat more when I’m running a distance like this.
  3. The Richard Bong Wilderness Recreation Area is a huge prairie area in southeastern Wisconsin. It was once slated to be an airport. I don’t know why it didn’t become one. But it has miles of trails.
  4. Trails that are frozen in the early morning are hard on the ankles. Once they thaw, they get kind of squishy and are hard on the hips.
  5. Mud can pull your shoes off. Oops.
  6. After a while, it’s not going to hurt any more than it already does, so you might as well run because you’ll get done faster. I had a real low point from about mile 19 to mile 24ish. But I rallied during the last 4-mile loop and even passed two people during the last mile (I only passed about four people all race, so this was significant). Looking at the results, one of the people I passed went on to finish about three minutes behind me, so it made a difference.
  7. Running where hunting is going on can be nerve-wracking, but hunters tend to be pretty methodical. Also, I think bullets are expensive, so they don’t want to waste them on you, because you’re not a pheasant.
  8. The hooded sweatshirt I got for this run is awesome and I’m not taking it off until spring.
  9. Driving home right after an ultra sucks. I cramped so badly. But listening to this interview of Lorretta Napolioni on Travel with Rick Steves was REALLY INTERESTING. One of the best interviews I have heard in a long time.
20161112_102715
Some of the trails.

Although I am inherently an angry liberal, I’ve decided to try to talk to more people about politics lately because why not try to understand things outside of my liberal bubble. I had a nice conversation about politics with a woman I ran with for about seven or eight miles. She came from a more conservative part of the state, although she wound up voting for Clinton because of Trump’s statements about women. She was upset about the outcome of the election, but described Trump mostly as more transparently corrupt than Clinton. She wondered if he would be impeached.

Wouldn’t that be interesting.

My longest run for this race was the 18 miles I did last weekend while pacing at tBunk. Before that, I did 16 a week or two ago and 19 at the beginning of September. Otherwise I was busy racing on the weekends. I have gotten faster over short distances, but this wasn’t the best strategy for building the endurance needed for this kind of race. Oops.

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A few minutes after finishing, before I staggered to my car.

Whatever I did right or wrong, I feel good today. I had a little light blistering on one foot (caused by my foot striking the uneven ground in a weird position) and some chafing and whatnot, but my muscles were back to nearly normal twenty-four hours later. I went down and watched the finishers at the Madison Marathon on Sunday and thought, wow, they look like hell. Do I look like that when finishing a race? And also, races are much more fun when you’re spectating instead of running them. And then Monday morning, I went out and ran five miles. Maybe I’m finally getting decent at these longer distance races. On the other hand, I don’t see myself doing any more this year, and next year is a big question mark, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

The Election, and a Few Notes on Pacing

My blog got a bunch of hits the day after the election, as though someone was hoping I’d have something to say. And– I don’t know that I have anything to add to the ongoing fury, but I do have one observation.

In 2008, I went to an Obama rally in Philadelphia. It was October, not long before the election, and after eight years of Bush I didn’t feel especially optimistic that he was going to be able to bring us the change he was promising. My friends and I walked a long way through Philly to get to the rally, and then waited in line for a long time.

I live in a liberal area, but also a very, very white area. So while I knew Madisonians were enamored of Obama, it wasn’t quite like it was in Philly. As we waited under the hot noontime sun, I looked at an array of t-shirts featuring the senator dunking, the senator in African colors, the senator looking senatorial in that iconic HOPE image, Obama as Lincoln, Obama as a Russian comrade. They were different aspects of the man, different avatars. I began, dimly, to realize that all of these were ways in which the community–of democrats, but also of African Americans–were projecting themselves onto the man who was shortly to become president, convincing themselves that he was one of them, that his concerns were the same as theirs. This is like the imagined communities that Benedict Anderson wrote about. People imagine themselves into the political community of the nation; regardless of what the politician actually says, they find the ways in which it’s relevant to their lives.

It wasn’t until the current election and the selection of Hillary Clinton for the democratic nominee that I understood what was going on. The job of a leader is to lead, but to really inspire the populace, a leader has to provide a somewhat blank canvas for people to project something of themselves onto. I realized this even as I was doing it myself, feeling moved and significant to be voting for the first-ever woman who had a ghost of a chance of winning. I even own a magnificent t-shirt similar to those I saw back in 2008; this one features Hillary as George Washington and Bill as Martha.

The flip side of this, of course, is that we project our fears onto the opposition. Notwithstanding the fact that our current president elect has done and said some terrible things (for which, G-d willing, he’ll answer someday), I think the current hysteria in the liberal press is a bit overly dramatic. Trump is not the Antichrist; he’s just some guy. Are bad things happening? Yes. There have been some hate crimes committed this week. But those are still illegal. Let’s not lose sight of this fact: we are not living in a dictatorship. This isn’t the Philippines, people can’t just walk into your house and shoot you for free right now. He is not going to dismantle every liberal advance of the last fifty years. I don’t think he can. Is he going to be embarrassing and tone-deaf? Yes. Is he going to start a nuclear war? I don’t believe it.

We’ve had good presidents and bad presidents, and the country has always survived them. In fact, the country has pretty consistently alternated between liberal and conservative leadership for the last forty years at least. The majority of Americans don’t make their decision based on much more than how they feel they’re doing when they step in the voting booth.

We may not be happy with the results–those protesting are justified in doing so, in my opinion, and I think we need to abolish the electoral college–but running around shrieking (and reading five hundred think pieces about how this happened) is not going to help anything. Instead, try to be kind to each other, and continue to speak truth to power wherever you can, stand up for the downtrodden wherever it is necessary, and consider getting involved with local politics. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching Parks and Recreation, it’s that being an angry person at a local committee meeting can sway the motion of the wheels of power.

For the majority of voters, this was not a referendum on the state of the soul of the nation. It was two crappy politicians making half-believable promises. I desperately want to believe that it is not the case that 50% of the (voting) country is composed of racists, sexists, bigots, anti-Semites. They’re just people who are frustrated with the current administration. I’m actually willing to place a bet that most of them did not vote against Clinton because she was a woman, or because they have some complex view that boils down to reasons why women cannot be president. If anything, the handful of liberals who have confessed, “I wasn’t that happy with Hillary” is the reason for why she lost–she was inspiring to me, but a moderate neo-liberal isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and a lot of them would just rather not make the effort to go vote for her. Hillary will always be president in my heart, and let me be clear–I cried when I realized she was going to lose–but the truth is, a lot of people think about the whole situation and shrug.

And that’s all I have to say about that. Stop reading the news, you’ll be happier. Get off social media and go outside. The moon is nearly full. Look at the stars and think about how small we all really are. And also this.


Okay, who wants to hear about pacing?

Last Saturday I joined my friend Sandy in Kettle Moraine State Park for 18.2 miles of fun after dark. For four and a half hours, we hiked, jogged, and occasionally fell down over wide trails that occasionally grew rocky and hard to navigate. The stars were magnificent, the temperature was chilly, and the woods are dark and terrifying.

pacing1

I tried not to let on to Sandy the tenor of my thoughts, but it’s basically like being in every horror movie ever made. When you’re pacing, the person you’re running with has been running for 50+ miles, which puts one in an altered state of mind. It falls to the pacer to try to create reality for them, specifically by not introducing weird ideas about the terrible things that could just jump out of the woods at you.

pacing2

Foxes make noises that sound like screams. A whole bunch of foxes can sound like children screaming. It’s a really weird thing to hear in the middle of the woods. Coyotes sound like you’d expect. And then we came around a bend and realized we could hear a sort of humming noise, like traffic at a distance. But we were in the middle of the woods out past Whitewater, not a spot known for heavy traffic patterns. In fact, when I looked at a map later on, I was fairly sure that we weren’t even near the meagre one-lane road that ran past the park. I told her I thought it was traffic anyway, because all my other ideas about what it could be ranged from the outré to the mildly macabre.

pacing3

In the dark, it’s hard to get clues from the environment in the way you normally would. For example, you can’t see the horizon or in many cases tell if you’re going up or down a gentle slope. Your internal proprioception can begin to fail and you find yourself running in all sorts of weird positions.

pacing4

As I was leaving, Sandy got her hiking poles out and went off to spend the next seven hours hiking alone through the woods (and then another six hours with her next pacer). I am staggered by the amount of commitment and mental fortitude that an event like this requires. It feels superhuman. I shivered halfway home, eventually stopping to buy decaf coffee, chocolate milk, and cheesy popcorn at the only 24-hour gas station I could find. Then I stuffed popcorn into my mouth the rest of the way home. #noregrets

Occasionally I’ve been asked if I was going to do a longer ultra–something 50+ miles long. I always say “maybe.” It’s certainly daunting. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel up to it. Pacing for a 100-miler was awesome though. I’d totally do that again.

Tomorrow I’m off to the Richard Bong State Recreation Area to try and run 28-ish miles and not get shot by hunters. I am overly enthusiastic and under-trained. Should be fun!

Em oi! #413: It’s Only 43 Leagues

150 miles is 43 leagues or 211,000 ells.
As ever, if you’re having trouble reading, click to embiggen. I’ve had this comic sitting on my desk since before my trip to Long Island last week. I only just got around to scanning it. Oops. I was playing around with some different inks and Speedball pens. I have mixed feelings about how the art came out.

Recently, I was sitting around working while B was playing a game called Shadows of Mordor. It’s a surprisingly good game, and we found ourselves getting drawn back into the whole Tolkien thing. First, we watched The Hobbit (the Tolkien edit, not the full version–also, our copy was corrupted, so I missed the battle of the five armies).[1] Thereafter, I started re-reading The Lord of the Rings. At first I was only going to read FoTR . . . but I’m about to finish TT tonight. I’m surprised by how much my memory of the book has been overwritten by the film version, which I saw approximately 100 times (each section). I had forgotten, for example, that Faramir doesn’t try to drag Sam and Frodo back to Osgiliath(?) only to be attacked by a Nazgul. (Now I’m not even sure I’m recalling the film correctly.)

I’ve also become obsessed with the distances everyone is traveling in the book. In many sections it’s hard to tell, but in general I get the feeling that before the splintering of the fellowship, they are walking about twenty miles per day, more or less. That’s twenty miles in eight to twelve hours. At one point, when traveling with Glorfindel, this is referred to as a very long, difficult day’s march. The above comic was my immediate reaction. Of course, terrain counts for something, and they were frequently not on trails but just sort of out in the middle of the country, but still. (Maybe it was Bill the pony slowing them down?) Somewhat surprisingly, both groups (Legolas / Gimli / Aragorn and Sam / Frodo / Gollum) move much faster after the splintering than before it. But seriously, if I can run 31 miles in six hours, they should be able to go a little faster.

Another thing that interests me is that at least up to the point where Sam, Frodo, and Gollum enter Mordor, Sauron’s evil is very remote. The surroundings, even into Ithilien, are described as beautiful and the weather is quite fine. If one takes the tales of Sauron’s evil as provided by such luminaries as Gandalf, Elrond, etc. as tales (opinion rather than necessarily fact), it’s easy to begin to see Sauron as just a (hated) political leader. The orcs, for example, as seen during the scene of Merry / Pippin’s abduction, are quite like men in many ways with their conflicting loyalties and drive for glory. Sauron also employs regular men for his cause. In fact, when Faramir and his troops ambush a bunch of soldiers heading to Mordor, Tolkien offers us the following surprisingly sympathetic passage:

. . . Suddenly straight over the rim of their sheltering bank, a man fell, crashing through the slender trees, nearly on top of them. He came to rest in the fern a few feet away, face downward, green arrow-feathers sticking from his neck below a golden collar. . . .

It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace… (646)

Tolkien was, of course, a veteran of the First World War. This paragraph speaks to me of perhaps a memory of his battlefield experiences and the trauma he may have experienced. But it also raises for me the question of Sauron–the ever-unseen Big Bad, who is noted to be fixing the roads outside Mordor, who is apparently able to convince a lot of people, including Sauramon, to join him–can he really be as bad as Gandalf et al tell us? But beyond that, even despite the themes of good and evil, Tolkien doesn’t necessarily view these battles as righteous or valiant, and he doesn’t necessarily lionize violence.

At this point, B looked over at me and said, “Are you arguing that Sauron is all right because he made the trains run on time?”

Well, maybe. Don’t look at me like that. My favorite characters from this rereading are Smeagol / Gollum[2] and Galadriel, so.

If you’re interested in this “LotR is a story told by the victors and Sauron was framed” idea, you may want to look into The Last Ringbearer, a Russian parallel novel exploring that side of things.

There is clearly a lot more to talk about in LotR (I mean, it’s over 900 pages long), including world building, the role of women, the peoples and the North / West versus South / East thing, the colonial(ish) myth of empty places for colonization, etc. But I’m not going to touch on those here–feel free to comment with your thoughts though. And tell me I’m not alone in liking Gollum and hating Sam.

We’ll file this comic under GV1065.17 T65 L86 2016, for Recreation. Leisure–Sports–Track and field athletics–Foot racing. Running–Distance running–Marathon running–Special topics, A-Z–Tolkien, works of.

Cited
Tolkien, JRR. The Lord of the Rings. New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.

[1] I still really want to see the Dol Guldor part. I love Galadriel and am a longtime fan of the actor who played Radagast.

[2] I actually feel like Gollum is rather hard done by. He certainly doesn’t deserve much of the shit he gets at the hands of Frodo and Sam. Sam is especially pretty cruel to him–there’s another paragraph where Gollum finds the two hobbits sleeping, and Tolkien writes that “could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, and old starved pitiable thing” (699). That passage very much made up my mind about him. And he is a much more interesting and complex character than a lot of them.

Reading List for 2016

I read a few books in 2015:

  1. Hawksmoor, by Peter Ackroyd. Review.
  2. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon. Review.
  3. Relentless Forward Progress, by Bryon Powell. Didn’t review.
  4. Dune, by Frank Herbert. Review.
  5. Gligamesh (John Harris version; audio book). Didn’t review.
  6. Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer. Didn’t review.
  7. Blind Descent, by James M. Tabor. Review.
  8. Touching My Father’s Soul, by Jamling Tenzing Norgay and Broughton Coburn. Didn’t review.
  9. Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem. Review.
  10. The Martian, by Andy Weir. Review.
  11. Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein. Review.
  12. The Confusion, by Neal Stephenson. Maybe when I finish the next one I’ll review the series.
  13. The Fellowship of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Reread, so didn’t review.
  14. Racing Weight, by Matt Fitzgerald. Didn’t review.
  15. World War Z, by Max Brooks (audiobook). Review.
  16. Blueshift, by Claire Wahmanholm. Not going to review, but I’ll say that if this doesn’t get picked up by a publisher, the world will be a sadder place.

That’s ten fiction books in various genres and five nonfiction. I also read
about 3,500 pages of books as an editor (one 300-ish page novel and twelve non-fiction books, several of which were highly academic). There may have been a few more that didn’t make it onto the list, plus let’s not even mention the various books that I picked up, read a chapter of, and put down again. (I am an annoyingly peripatetic reader; my tendency is to leave books here and there, never finishing more than a chapter at a go. Sometimes it can take me a long time to read things.)

I think my favorite of this group was Dune. That is a hard determination to make; many of these really spoke to me in deep ways, and as a writer I learned a lot from many of them. My love for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is very profound, I should add. It was a close race.

This was also the year that my book came out in paperback. So far, of the initial one hundred copies I purchased, I have twenty left. I didn’t get a website up yet, but soon. I know I’ve been saying that for several months now.

This is my preliminary reading list for 2016. Some of these are carry-overs from last year, and I have to look at them again and determine whether or not they’re still something I’m interested in. In a few days when I have solidified it, I’ll move it to the navigation bar above. If you have any books to recommend for me, feel free to let me know and maybe I’ll add them to the list.

    • The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer
    • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
    • Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
    • A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimer McBride
    • Viviane, by Julia Deck
    • The Way of Kings, by Branden Sanderson
    • Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Tom Stoppard
    • Being and Nothingness, by Jean-Paul Sartre
    • Dhalgren, by Samual R. Delaney (I did a little excited dance when this came in the mail)
    • Emma, by Jane Austen (How have I not read this before? I have read P&P, S&S, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey.)
    • The Parallax View, by Slavoj Zizek
    • The System of the World, by Neal Stephenson
    • The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien
    • The History of Human Sexuality, by Michel Foucault
    • “The Library of Babel,” by Jorge Luis Borges (yes okay, it is a short story)

St. Paul or Bust: The Surprisingly Weird Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon

This marathon, you guys. I don’t know what to say about it. It has been a tough couple of weeks for me. And so . . . this is my blog, let’s talk about it.

Training

My training for this race was pretty consistent. I logged 208 miles in June, 221.5 miles in July, 253.8 miles in August, and 229.4 miles in September. My longest run was 23.5 miles, which was our running group’s trek out along the planet path from the Monona Terrace to Mount Horeb. That run happened August 29, and it was basically my last long run of the training session. I had an 18-mile run toward the beginning of August too, and a bunch of runs in the 15–16 mile range. There were some weekends where I meant to do 15/15 or 13/13 across Saturday/Sunday, and typically the second day’s run was not as long as planned. But then again, there were a lot of weeks where I took a random day off on a Tuesday or Wednesday to deal with aches and pains preemptively and then ran on Friday, so my legs typically weren’t as fresh going into the weekend as they might have been.

I also did some speedwork for this race. I did mostly 800s (working up to 10 x 800), 400s, or in the last two weeks, strides (15-second sprints with about 45–60 seconds of recovery). These were always as part of a run with warmup and cooldown on normal terrain, not on a track. My pace on these was usually around 8:00 min/mile plus or minus; in fact, the goal for each run was to do the intervals (not the strides) at 85% to 90% of max HR. I made this decision based on the strategies suggested by Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas in Road Racing for Serious Runners. The book is more geared toward races up to the half marathon distance, but I do so little speedwork that it seemed like a good (and unintimidating) starting point. Eighty-five percent of max HR or 8:00 min/mi works out to be about a 5K race pace, which is slow enough that I’m not (or don’t seem to be) in danger of injuring myself doing it.

Finally, my running group was doing our long runs at close to race pace, often in the 8:50–9:20 min/mi range, which basically turned my long run into a long tempo run every week. This was quite helpful; I started out this training cycle just after the 50K feeling like a 9:20 was very fast, and finished able to do a half marathon distance run at an 8:48 min/mi pace, which required some pushing but felt generally comfortable. As a result, I decided my goal for the race—contingent on having a good taper—was going to be 3:55:xx.

Marathon Week

So on the 26th of September, I tested for 4th kyu in aikido. The last weeks prior to the test were for me filled with a lot of aikido classes, so I was feeling a bit bruised by the end of it and ready to taper. Then, on the 28th, Bryan had knee surgery.

The Knee Surgery Thing

Back in the spring, B had his knee scoped. I think the technical term is a knee arthroscopy. The idea was to get a good look at a small defect on the femoral articular cartilage that has prevented him from running for, at that point, a bit over a year. At the time, the ortho shaved down the edges of the defect, and B decided to see how it went. But after rehabbing it, he found that while he could do short sprints during a game of ultimate, he couldn’t really run farther than about a mile and a half with me (on grass-covered trails, specifically) without pain. And then a day came when he went to frisbee and ran too much and the pain didn’t stop for over a week. So he got put on the list for a cartilage transplant.

The thing about being on the list, besides the awesomeness of medical technology that this is an option and the creepiness of having someone else’s cells in your body, is that you don’t know when exactly they’re going to call and tell you it’s time to rock and roll. So B got the call two weeks before my marathon, and possibly because of the aikido test (plus a play we were going to that weekend), he scheduled the surgery they told him Monday the 28th was go day. I’m glad he was able to come to my test, which meant a lot to me, and able to enjoy the play, which would have been difficult if he’d had to try to manage APT on crutches. But it did leave us a rather slender window for him to recover enough for a four-hour car ride.

After the first surgery last spring, he was back on his feet almost right away. Not an exaggeration: We went out to dinner that evening, and I had to glare at him to get him to bring the crutches into the restaurant. The surgery itself was very non-invasive, and they encouraged him to get back to walking as soon as he could. The second surgery ended with a four or five inch incision down the front of his knee, and he’s now on crutches with orders not to put any weight on the affected limb for the first three weeks, with another three weeks of gradual buildup to follow. So not only was his mobility a good bit different, his pain levels were as well; after the first operation, I think he took a few Tylenol, whereas after the nerve block for this one wore off, he needed serious painkillers. And then he developed some other side effects that I’m not going to get into, but suffice it to say that it was kind of an unpleasant week for him.

The thing about the running industry, such as it is and such as I interact with it, is that it is always telling people they have to make running a priority. Going out for a jog, being fit—if you want those things, you have to prioritize them. But the thing is, running is not really a priority for me in that sense. Running is a thing I do in order to stay sane and manage my stress levels, just like brushing my teeth is a thing I do because I have a horrible fear of my teeth falling out like in Tommyknockers to maintain dental hygiene. Race preparation, on the other hand, is something I have to prioritize or it doesn’t really happen.

Over the course of the week, watching B’s health/comfort levels wax and wane, it became clear to me that there was a serious question about whether or not he was going to be able to make the drive up. And I wasn’t ready to leave him to anyone else’s machinations; either we went together or I wasn’t going.[1] So it may be obvious here what I’m pointing at—my taper did not really happen, or not very well.

The Personal Becomes Political

Monday was also when the race organizers sent out an email informing us runners that a protest by the group Black Lives Matter was being planned to disrupt the race at mile 25. Apparently they (BLM) had first announced their plans on the 26th or so, but I wasn’t following the issue then.

At first, I was quite disappointed. After a really long, stressful summer, I had been really looking forward to going up to see my brother and his wife, hanging out, doing the race . . . it sort of belatedly dawned on me that this was a very privileged way to look at things—they’re ruining my relaxing vacation, my race, and so on, when what they’re asking for—justice for police brutality—is both an extremely reasonable thing to request and something that it’s unlikely I’ll ever have to deal with. Which is to say, anyone in the BLM crowd would also like a relaxing vacation weekend, but they weren’t going to get it.

By, I guess, late Wednesday, I was reconciled to the fact that I would run twenty-five miles to where the protest was, symbolically turn off the course, and then jog back to my brother’s house about a block away. And then do, you know, another 1.2 miles on my own. But I wouldn’t be officially finishing. (I came to this decision in part because of discussions with a number of very smart friends and in part because I read some of the comments on the marathon’s Facebook page and realized which side of the issue I thought I wanted to be on. But also, to be honest, the whole thing also felt kind of secondary to the rest of the stuff that was going on in my life, like something I was watching from a distance.)

Thursday, the city of St. Paul and the marathon people announced that a deal had been struck and the race would not be obstructed. Instead, the protesters would be given 1) a meeting with the mayor, and 2) a place near the finish to hold their protest.

Kickoff

Pre-race
Pre-race selfie. It was cold. I was tired.

So, spoiler alert, B was able to make the drive up. Friday afternoon and all of Saturday were spent in Daniel and Claire’s most entertaining company, doing things like drinking Pimm’s and grapefruit soda, eating curry, and watching episodes of Sherlock. Then, Sunday morning, we got up early for the race.

Starting line crowd
The crowd at the starting line.

Well, the race was at 8:00; I got up at 5:00 because B got up at 5 to take some pain meds. So it goes. Daniel and Claire kindly dropped me off at a few blocks from the starting line around 7:40, just enough time for a quick warm up and a stop at the port-o-potty. Actually, the PoP I found was right where a bunch of the pros were lining up, so I got to pee within ten feet of the person who actually won the marathon.[2]

The beginning of the marathon was a bit of a problem. The race typically hosts about 8,500 people or so, and we were divided up into four corrals. However, as I jogged along the sidewalk, I could see pacer signs but no indication of where each corral started. I also noticed that the numbers of the runners in the corral I was passing (corral 1) were a different color than mine, which made me anxious that I’d accidentally stumbled into the 10-miler starting area instead.[3] Eventually I ducked in and a woman in a bright yellow vest told me to move back to the 2nd corral (where I was assigned to start).

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The palatial estates around Lake of the Isles.

I had jogged about 0.27 miles at this point. For some reason, I decided to just hit lap on my watch rather than clearing it. This had a few unintended consequences. First, during the first mile plus, there were a lot of tall buildings that messed up the distance tracking of my watch; since the time was also off, I couldn’t rely on that to estimate my pace. Second, I didn’t realize that the corrals were going to be released as waves, with several minutes between each. So not only was my watch off from the time on the mile marker clocks by an unknown amount, our wave time was also. Basically, I was pretty lost.

The route starts out downhill for the first mile, then turns up as you run past the Walker art museum (a beautiful building; I’d love to see the collection there sometime) at mile 2. The best sign spotted during this section said “Keep running! . . . Unless you’re Donald Trump!” Then it’s on to circle three lakes, Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun, and Lake Harriet from around the 5K mark. This part of the race is great—the houses ringing each lake are easily some of the priciest properties in the city, and there was a good crowd out to watch and cheer us on, too (and all of their dogs).[4] I felt very strong and relaxed through this section, and I was making pretty good time, clocking low 9s and even some high 8s (8:58, 8:46, 8:48). I came through the 5K in 28:xx and the 10K in 56:xx. Around mile 8, we left the first three lakes and entered a long, fairly flat part that went beneath some underpasses and eventually left us near Lake Nokomis around mile 11. I had originally thought I was going to see Daniel and Claire during this part of the race, so I stayed occupied looking for them in the crowds. Later I found out that they missed me in several places by only a few minutes. Crumbs.

Lake of the Isles or Lake Calhoun
Panorama around Lake of the Isles (or possibly Lake Calhoun).

I came through the half marathon point in what I thought, after considerable mental calculation, was about 1:58:xx. I was still moving well, and I knew if I could do the second half in that amount of time, I would wind up very close to my goal. At this point, I decided that I was going to take it easy until I reached Summit Avenue, and then really hammer it home on the last 10K. Just really leave it out on the course.

running mi 22ish
Approaching mile 22 or so. Photo by Claire.

Of course, there were some complications. Aren’t there always? Somewhere around mile 17, my left knee began to ache. At first I thought it might be my IT band, since jogging with Daniel the day before he’d mentioned his own ITB issues. I slowed considerably because of the pain, and the four hour pace group was suddenly right behind me. I managed to gap them briefly, only to be caught when I stopped to stretch. I told myself I’d catch them back up, but I didn’t see them again for the rest of the race. Of course, the problem wasn’t my ITB—it was my hip.[5] So there wasn’t really anything I could do. I tried to just relax and enjoy the day, since I quickly came to the realization that my goal time was not going to be met. At one point, I saw a lady with an orange tabby cat on a leash. The cat was lying in the grass, looking pretty chilled out, all things considered. I shouted at her, “That’s a funny-looking dog.” She seemed confused and shouted back, “Thanks?”

running mi 22
Around mile 22. Photo by Claire.

Around mile 19, there was a considerable hill near the University of St. Thomas that I’d forgotten about. At the top of it, a friend from my running group, Julie, was spectating, and she jogged about a block with me. That gave me a big boost. Then I finally got to turn onto Summit, which was kind of a bummer because the first two or three miles are one gradual hill. I don’t remember noticing it last time, but this time it was both obvious and hard. But I got to see Daniel and Claire in there (I think around mile 22), so that was another exciting boost.

Summit Avenue is another really nice section of town with really expensive old houses to gawk at. As I recall from 2008, the stretch between miles 23 and 24 was the longest ever. Although I kept hitting the lap button on my watch when I passed a mile marker, it was never registering a mile when I got to the next one, so everything seemed interminable. I was also having quite a bit of pain in both knees by this point. Then I got to see not just Daniel and Claire at mile 25, but B as well—he’d managed to crutch down to see me hobble by. What a rush!

mile 25 kiss
Mile 25 meeting. Photo by Claire.

I did reflect, as I left him, that if the protest had gone off as planned, I would be stopping at that point. And, to be honest, I would have been totally okay with stopping. But I was so close.

As I approached the finish line, I remembered the protest again. I had planned to symbolically raise my hands in the “hands up” gesture as I ran past them to express my solidarity for the protesters, since I thought from what I’d heard from the race that it was unlikely they were going to give runners the option to exit the course.[6] But I didn’t actually see the protest. I did see, off to the left behind a chain-link fence, a bunch of people holding signs, but they were mostly white, and also standing in a circle facing inward, so I couldn’t really read any of the signs to determine what group they represented. And I was actually in some not-inconsiderable pain and very focused on just getting through to the finish line, so I decided not to stay and look around and just kept going.

I finished in 4:03:36, about eight minutes off my goal time. The first time I ran the TCM, in 2008, I finished in 4:41:10, so I’ve made considerable improvements in the last seven years. I’m not quite where I want to be/think I should be, but I’m somewhere other than where I started. And that’s sort of the idea, I guess.

The Aftermath

As I mentioned, I crossed the finish line with pain in both knees. Fortunately, there was no permanent damage. With B’s help, the joint got shifted back to its proper position, and I am now again pain-free. I have already been out and run a few times this week, with no noticeable problems other than my quads being tired. I also felt pretty beat up generally at the finish; I think I have done so many trail races lately that I had kind of forgotten how running so far on concrete makes you feel like you’ve been beaten. My next two races are on a combination of cement and gravel, so we’ll see how that affects me.

Post-race selfie.
Slightly crazed post-race selfie.

I also finished with some pretty bad chafing on my back—it seems the belt I was carrying my phone in bounced around a lot, to the point where I had several kind of ugly, bloody scrapes on the small of my back. Those are still healing—yesterday at aikido, I noticed the top piece of my hakama occasionally digging into them when I fell. Ow.

Other than those, life has been pretty decent. And B’s recovery has been going pretty well.

When I told the story of this race to a friend, she asked why I didn’t just stop when things started to hurt. I don’t really have a good answer. I guess I just didn’t feel like anything was bad enough to warrant stopping, so I didn’t. What kind of what would warrant stopping? I don’t know the answer to that either. I do know that I have one more big race (ultra) and a half scheduled for this year, and possibly a 5K or 10K on Thanksgiving, and then I’m going to take it a little easy for a while. Easy meaning nothing longer than a half, maybe doing some weird trail race distances that are, you know, 15K or whatever. Maybe doing some more swimming. I feel like I say that a lot after marathons. I guess time will tell if I actually mean it.


[1] Not to sound too noble. I was going to run 26.2 miles on Sunday regardless of where I was, but if I was at home, I was planning to do 5 x 5 mile loops with a break for an ice cream sandwich after each.
[2] Okay, that was one of the weirder sentences I’ve written.
[3] I found out later that the 10-mile race had already been won by the time we set out. The winner finished in about 56:xx. Holy cow.
[4] Best dog: a husky who, when he heard the crowd shout “Woo!,” started howling. Also spotted a small bear-like beasty (possibly a chow puppy) being held and bounced like a baby by its owner.
[5] My SI joint slips, and then one of my legs becomes longer than the other, putting pressure on my knees. I’ve started doing more plank/dead bugs/half bridges to try to prevent it, but it still happens.
[6] So for liability reasons, races don’t want you leaving the course without telling anyone. There have been cases of runners getting eaten by bears and so forth—of course, an unlikely outcome in a big city marathon, but still.

Em oi! #407: What Time Is It?

em_407
Hello, friends, and welcome back to another season of Em oi! I believe this is the ninth now, or it will be as soon as I learn how to draw again. So much has happened during my little sabbatical. I do appreciate everyone’s patience with my lack of comic production–during the more stressful parts of the summer, I wasn’t feeling especially funny, and the time off has helped a lot. The summer also included:

  • The death of my brother and sister-in-law’s awesome dog, Mac Z”L (pictured in Em oi! 367 and 370). I am sad that he had to go; he was a good dog.
  • The cat’s illness and recovery, alluded to here (note 1). As of this writing, she is still doing well (you may be able to see some pictures of her in the bar to the right).
  • I started to learn how to program computers.
  • I took up painting, because the stress from watching the election was getting to me and, as Bob Ross put it, I just wanted to be in a world where nothing bad happens. I am going to work harder at ignoring certain candidates for the next few months, I think.
  • My novella, The Joy of Fishes, will be released as a paperback on October 6th.
  • Pursuant to that, I hope to have a website up at ehlupton.com fairly soon. It is mostly designed (thanks to B); I just have to write the text and transfer it over to the new domain.
  • And finally, I’m training for the Twin Cities Marathon on October 4th. Everything has been going well up to this point; my longest run, 23 miles, happened a few weeks ago, and I will be going on taper after this weekend. I am pretty ready to be tapering at this point, so I suppose that’s a good sign. I am hoping the weather will be good and I will go sub-4. TCM was my first marathon, completed SEVEN YEARS AGO.

Which brings us to this comic, because seven years ago this past September 6th, I went on my first date with B. A month later, only a day or two after the marathon, we went over to a local athletic club and got a joint membership, and he started teaching me to lift weights. So what is depicted in the comic has basically been my life ever since.

I guess I’m just lucky.

Maybe if I get some time I will write down my advice for weight lifting, because I have been doing it for a while now. Or maybe if you’re interested in that I’ll just let you google for it.

We’ll file this comic under GV546.3 L86 2015, for (are you ready?) Recreation. Leisure–Physical education and training–Gymnastics. Gymnastic exercises–Heavy exercises–Weight training. Weight lifting. Bodybuilding–Weight lifting–General works. That’s a mouthful, isn’t it?

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Starship Troopers, because why stop with the cheap scifi just when I’m hating myself?

Heinlein, Robert A. Starship Troopers. New York: Ace Books, 1987. First published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959.

Not like a Cyberman at all.
Not like a Cyberman at all.

I have become enamored of reading bad science fiction late at night when I am feeling anxious for whatever reason. In this case, the cat’s health issues over the past month have certainly been a constant source of stomach-churning fun.[1]

Short story shorter, a few weeks ago I found a copy of Starship Troopers in the Alex P— Immemorial Wing of the library. I’d recently had a discussion with my youngest brother about politics in literature, so I decided to take a little look through it. So let’s summarize the plot!

Juan “Johnnie” Rico is an immigrant from the Phillipines (or the area formerly known as) to the US (or the area—you get the idea—the book isn’t super specific about world geography in a lot of ways) who grows up in luxury, the son of a rich businessman. He’s living in a futuristic society (post-20th century, date not specified but seems pretty far into the future, since there’s faster-than-light travel and various other gadgets) in which military or other civil service is a prerequisite for becoming a full citizen (of what is referred to as the Federation). Most people don’t bother—you can live a perfectly fine life without becoming a citizen; the main drawback is that you don’t get to vote. Still, come their 18th birthdays, Johnnie, his best friend Carl, and a girl in his class named Carmen all go down to the Army/Navy office and sign up. Carmen, who is very good at math and has good reflexes, goes to piloting school. Carl, who we are led to believe is pretty smart, winds up in R&D. And Johnnie, who has no particular skills other than being a pretty engrossing narrator, joins the M.I., or Mobile Infantry. They are basically like the normal infantry, except they have rocket-powered jumpsuits that allow them to bound over a lot of terrain relatively quickly. This turns out to be something of a blessing in disguise for him, as he is able to gain discipline, martial skills, insight into why a person might become a soldier and why it’s important that only those who have served have the vote, and other pressing societal issues. After a while, the Federation gets into a war with the bug people. Juan makes up with his estranged father, then goes to officer training school and winds up as a lieutenant leading his own platoon.

Heinlein writes about military life with a certain familiarity—he went to the naval training academy himself, though he was discharged in the 1930s with TB and never saw combat. Still, his descriptions of boot camp have a vividness to them that will be somewhat familiar to anyone who has taken part in physically demanding activities.[2] In fact, while the book is set in the future, it’s a future that smells a lot like the 1950s. We have air cars, yes, as well as faster-than-light ships and an elaborate body armor for soldiers that enables them to fly, but people still read newspapers and receive telegrams, fill out forms by hand and receive paper letters. Perhaps more striking, all the fighting is done by boots on the ground rather than, for example, drones.[3] Of course, the book would not have been as exciting had our hero been training to fly drones rather than fight himself.

Philosophically speaking, there are a few other interesting points to be made. In many ways, Rico functions as a cog in a machine, and he implies that everyone in the army functions in the same way. This is, on the one hand, bureaucracy taken to its natural extreme; on the other hand, it’s confusing to think of an army where everyone has to fight, including people who might otherwise have incredibly important skills that would dictate that they should be kept alive (like code breakers/linguists/etc.). Interestingly, despite having many friends die in training and combat, Rico never questions 1) the training he is receiving, 2) the war he is fighting, or 3) the overall necessity for war (he sees it as a biological necessity based on the availability of habitat). And for all his pro-MI rhetoric, Rico never really gets a triumph. He succeeds in a lot of things, including rescuing his Buck Sergeant[4], a man called Zim, from the bugs, but he is injured during the rescue and doesn’t really recall all of it, negating and distancing him from what would otherwise have been quite a victory. In this way, Heinlein sort of acknowledges, obliquely, that while war may be rationalized with a variety of pretty, noble tropes, its actual execution is quite a bit uglier, and much less noble.

This book does a good job of developing the world in which it’s set gradually; by the time you get to the end, you’ve gotten a fairly good idea of what life in it is like, but Heinlein doesn’t rush to dump information on you at the beginning. The book also features a fair amount of diversity in terms of race compared to most science fiction. And, at least compared to Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein’s treatment of women here is much less aggravating; yes, Rico repeatedly remarks at how pretty women are, but he’s unable to get off with anyone—in general because all the women he meets are way smarter than he is. He’s not bitter about this, which is refreshing, and the women, as I mentioned, are genuinely intelligent and good at their jobs (c.f. the constant parade of large-breasted bimbos in SiaSL).

My brother, mentioned mere paragraphs ago, reads this book as a satire. His reasons for this seem to be rooted in a few things about the book–for example, the way the the “bugs” are dehumanized/caricatured and some things about the way the bureaucracy functions, as well as the fact that later on, Heinlein commended the author of The Forever War, Joe Halderman, on having written such a good novel, and The Forever War is widely regarded as being about its author’s experience during the Vietnam War (in Vietnamee, Kháng chiến chống Mỹ). Having read the book, I’m not sure I believe him; Heinlein is a competent writer and a good storyteller, but I don’t know if he’s good enough to pull off that kind of unflinching satire.

I think that’s about all I have to say about this one. I’m told there’s a film version, but I looked at the plot, and it looked like the director didn’t actually read the book so much as steal the character names/title. Interestingly, there are a lot of articles suggesting that the film version is satire. So there’s that.

Next time: Something with women in it.


It's now her chair. Sometimes I get to share it.
It’s now her chair. Sometimes I get to share it.

[1] For those not following along on Facebook, the cat had an adenocarcinoma of the small intestine. She is currently doing well following a bowel resection, but the cancer isn’t really cured and will return, probably within the next six months. But there have been a few anxious nights, mostly because I’m still a hypochondriac.

[2] Like ultrarunning.

[3] Drones are weird, aren’t they? At any point in the last ten thousand years of human history right up to, oh, the mid-1990s, that war will always have to be fought by people was a reasonable assumption to make. Now the elimination of people from offensive combat could totally happen.

[4] Good luck figuring out the ranks discussed in the book. Lieutenant is higher than sergeant; that’s all I can tell you.

Getting Back Is Half the Problem: The Martian, by Andy Weir

Weir, Andy. The Martian. New York: Broadway Books, 2014.9780804139021

I first heard about this book when it was mentioned in this XKCD comic. For whatever reason, that description, plus the film’s trailer, made me want to read it. AND SO HERE WE ARE, AT THE BEGINNING OF ANOTHER REVIEW.

Hurrah?

Okay, plot summary: Mark Watney, a botanist and mechanical engineer, is accidentally left behind after the Ares 3 mission to Mars. In case you don’t know anything about interstellar travel, the distance between the Earth and Mars is roughly 140 million miles; it’s only 92 million miles from the sun to the Earth (a distance known as 1 Astronomical Unit, or AU), so the distance from the Earth to Mars is roughly one and a half times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. If you could travel the speed of light, you would be able to send a rescue mission across that distance in about 15 minutes, more or less. If you lived in the far future where there were ships waiting on the launch pad in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately for Watney, he lives in the more-or-less present, where technology is about what you’re familiar with and it’s going to take upwards of four years to get him rescued. And he has the rations sent for himself and five crew mates for thirty days, so all in all he has about one hundred and fifty days’ worth of food. Also, he has no way of communicating with NASA (the communications devices were damaged during the storm that caused his mission to abort). So he’s in what might be called a real pickle.

That’s the setup. I won’t give the ending away, since this is a relatively recent book, but if you haven’t read it and plan to, you should be aware that I will refer to details of the story later in this review that could potentially spoil parts of it for you. Consider yourself warned.

Watney faces his situation with a certain amount of nerve and a sense of humor. Most of the book is essentially epistlatory in nature, playing out through a series of log entries and email exchanges, although there are some narrative sections as well. Going beyond Watney, a lot of the supporting characters are not strongly drawn personalities; there’s Annie, the NASA media person, who cusses a lot; Venkat, the administrator who is in charge of the Ares project; Teddy, a higher-ranking administrator at NASA; Bruce, who is in charge of Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL); and some other astronauts who have various jobs. They are a mix of races and genders, but their characters didn’t feel distinct enough to be able to say, “This character’s drive is x, this one’s is y.” Perhaps because they all were working toward the same goal, and no one had any underhanded motives. It’s actually pretty easy to see why this book was picked to become a film[1]—the plot is really straightforward. There are certainly a lot of events that befall our hero as he scrapes through each day, but the goal—survival, getting off Mars—remains the same for the entire book, and with this sort of Man vs. Planet plot, there’s no need to humanize the opponent in the third act to set up some sort of gray area. And, as I said, the characters have only a few characteristics given—this one likes disco, this one likes old mystery novels—so for an actor, they might be a lot of fun to add more details to and really bring to life.

One thing this book does really effectively is teach the engineering mindset. This is something I’ve been getting into myself, since I’ve been learning how to write code the past few weeks. Basically when I say engineering mindset, what I mean is a step-based, iterative approach to problem-solving. You have a particular large issue—“How do I stay alive on a hostile planet for four years?”—and break it down into pieces. What do you need to survive? Food, water, shelter. Okay, what methods can you use to get food? (Hint: The hero, conveniently, is a botanist.) Once you have a method, if you can use this method to produce x amount of food, where the total amount you need is z and zx is > 0, how can you start to increase your yield? And so on. It’s not necessarily super thrilling, but it actually feels like how an astronaut might approach a problem like this, which is kind of neat.[2] I can tell now, looking at the film’s trailer, that a lot of stuff has been added in to provide emotional interest, whereas the book was heavy on the science and low on the human stuff (second trailer: super funny). I hope they don’t get rid of too much of the science stuff, since one of the neater sides of the book was getting to see something about how NASA, the JPL, and the various astronauts work on problems and think through things. For example, I didn’t realize that they were so concerned with mission failures that a 4% margin of error is considered unacceptably high. (Or perhaps it’s not, but the book is fairly accurate about a lot of space-related stuff.)[3] Somewhat unfortunately, during the times Watney is in contact with NASA/JPL, a lot of his narrative is reduced to “Did what NASA said. Awaiting next transmission.” He doesn’t go rogue or rebel. He just wants to do right and live through this. But his willingness to cooperate is really a hint at the intriguing central question of this book.

The soul of this book, the question it really grapples with, is not a scientific one but a human one: Why spend so much money and so many resources (both physical resources in terms of food and technology and ephemeral resources like time and manpower) to rescue one guy? A few of the characters in the book bring this up sort of peripherally—by expending all their efforts to get Watney, NASA is giving up a lot of other research projects that could be providing data (and they’re not the only one—NASA’s Chinese counterparts bemoan the loss of data a probe was supposed to bring them even as they hand it over to be used for this mission. Reporters, whose constant presence seems unfortunately very realistic, question whether the expenditure of money is worth it. The book’s answer is decisively yes, and it’s not just because Watney is such a winning character. As Watney puts it (you can hear him saying this if you go watch the trailer), people’s natural instinct is to pull together in a disaster—giving blood or money, volunteering to help in some way. The book is not about man’s inhumanity to man, as is the case with so many works, but about man’s humanity to man in the face of adversity. It’s a thought that feels startlingly naïve, and yet one that’s welcome in this age of strife.

I’m not usually a hard scifi person, but this book was an exciting and quick read. Weir is a good writer; he’s not poetic by any means, but he’s funny and has a solid grasp of his craft. His characters are smart. I’d say on the whole there aren’t enough female scientists represented—most of the characters are male—but that actually feels kind of petty here. And the women who do appear are as strong and smart as their male peers; in all the depiction is much more satisfying than the one in Dune. Sorry, Frank.


[1] In addition to the other things, the film being set on Mars, a very red-orange planet, gives the filmmakers a chance to make everything as orange and teal as possible.

[3] How dangerous it is to be an astronaut depends on how you look at who exactly is an astronaut and what exactly counts as an astronaut-related death (for example, a test pilot flying a plane at sufficient altitude could be considered to have entered space without actually being an astronaut; there have been a lot of deaths during training missions, both spaceflight-related, as Apollo I, and unrelated, as various plane crashes that have killed astronauts). Wikipedia says there have been eighteen in-space deaths in four incidents, thirteen non-space (training) deaths, and also lists a bunch of non-astronaut space-program-related fatalities, such as NASA personnel who got caught in the wrong place when things blew up. There have been 536 people in space as of November 2013, meaning that astronauts have a death rate of something like 5.78%. Yikes.