Thursday, October 08, 2015

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

Last week, in "the Martian", we had a science fiction book based on science fact of a single man stranded on Mars and trying to stay alive.  In "In the Kingdom of Ice", there is a true story of a voyage in the 1880s to determine if there really was a warm water sea at the north pole that could be reached by breaching an outer barrier of ice further south.

If the second story seems more fiction than the first, you are in for a treat.  A portion of learnered men  in North America and Europe were convinced that the North Pole was an open sea year round, due to a number of theories such as tunnels from deep in the earth (maybe the earth was hollow) feeding warm air or water to the pole and warm currents in the Pacific and Atlantic shooting under the ice encountered as you sailed further north and resurfacing at the pole.  The same New York newspaper that had Stanley find Livingston in Africa decided to fund a Navy expedition into the polar ice cap to determine if the warm water pole theory was true.

The newspaper owner funded the whole thing, including buying the ship, giving it to the navy, funding the refit in a west coast navy yard and buying all the supplies.  The ship sailed north, eventually became trapped in the ice for two years and then sunk.  The crew dragged everything they could south trying for the coast of Russia.  The story was a world-wide sensation at the time and the captain and crew were honored as heros.

Everything in this book is well documented and the story is compelling.  The tale is interesting enough at the beginning and by the end, I stayed up late to get through the last 70 harrowing pages.  It's that good.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

A year ago one of the more tech-interested readers of our book club recommended this book.  It didn't make the voting cut but the book has become a best seller and a movie, so it was worth giving a try.

The author is a computer programmer and space fan who made a hobby of understanding how you could send a manned mission to Mars.  Once he was into it, he wondered how you would deal with some disaster there involving the crew.  It led to him posting a story for free on line of a single crew member being stranded and left for dead.  That got enough interest that he responded to reader requests to have a kindle version.  Now it's a best seller in kindle and regular print, much to the surprise of the author.  It's not your normal version of an author's start in the business.

Science fiction has all kinds of angles, but usually involves an imagining of a technology that doesn't exist today (warp drive or flying cars) but at its best still has humans acting as we know them today but dealing with a different context.  Because of Mr. Weir's extreme interest in the science, this story of a crew being the third to reach Mars, experiencing conditions requiring a quick evacuation with one of the crew apparently dying in the process, and that crewman surviving thereafter is as close to the known science of space travel as is available today.  It is both a strength and weakness of the book.

The story is a good one that moves right along.  You really like the stranded crewman and admire his ability to survive under extreme conditions.  There are no bad guys here, just people acting as you hope they would when faced with the terrible knowledge that a person is stranded alone far away with no immediate vision of how he can survive.  If you are interested in things technological, then the many descriptions of the science that allows him to move forward will make the story more believable.  If you are not interested, then the story still works, but you may skip a lot of the technical description.  Either way, it's a quick read and a good adventure story.