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The Martian by Andy Weir is the best book I’ve read in a while. I consumed it in the last 24 hours. But first, here’s what I woke up to this morning.
No – I’m not on Mars. But Mark Watney was. And while Mars is a lot more desolate than Homer, Alaska, I disconnected from the human race several times right in the middle of a work week because of the amazingness of this book. At 2am last night, I said out loud to my wife Amy, who was fast asleep, “I’m going to be tired tomorrow afternoon.” And, as I crawled into bed after a stretch of 7am to 2pm video conferences, I said “Wow, I’m tired, but I’m not nearly as fucked as Mark Watney is right now.”
The story is a simple one. A mission on Mars goes badly in the sixth day of 31, the six person crew aborts quickly, but during the abort, one person (Mark) gets separated, is lost, and left for dead. Except he’s not. After he regains consciousness, he realizes he’s been abandoned on Mars. The good news is that all the stuff from their mission, including what will become the very famous HAB, two Rovers, and all their supplies and equipment, is still there. The bad news is that Mark is alone on Mars with no communication back to Earth since all the comm gear was in the spacecraft that was used for the abort.
Day by day, piece by piece, hack by hack, Mark survives. His brain is amazing – he’s a classical botany / electrician / engineer hacker. Well – I guess there’s no such thing, but that’s the fun of it. He’s awesomely descriptive, has a wicked sense of humor, and incredible survival instinct. And his creativity, in the endless near-death experiences he finds himself in, is awe-inspiring.
NASA and the people of Earth eventually figure out he’s alive. He figures out how to communicate with them. As he continues to extend his life expectancy, a plan to rescue him comes together. It blows up on the launch pad. Another plan emerges. Communication is lost. A series of parallel epic journeys begin. Tension, already high, mounts. And Mark continues to almost die, but then figure out a way not to.
What a wonderful book. I can only imagine how badly Mark smelled at the end of it.
As we roll into the weekend, and I start another digital sabbath, I’ve got the question “what really matters about being human” rolling through my mind.
I spent the afternoon at the Silicon Flatirons conference SciFi and Entrepreneurship – Is Resistance Futile? I thought it was phenomenal and remarkably thought provoking. I came back to my office to find Dane and Eugene playing TitanFall on my 75″ screen. In a few minutes I’m heading out to dinner with my parents, Amy, and John Underkoffler of Oblong who was in town for the conference. The juxtaposition of another intense week rolling into the weekend and a day off the grid intrigues me.
The first panel was a fireside chat between me and William Hertling. William is one of my favorite sci-fi writers who I think has mastered the art of near term science fiction. If you haven’t read any of his three books, I encourage you to head over to William’s website or Amazon and grab them now.
At the end of our fireside chat, we were asked a question. I heard the question as about mortality so I went on a long space jam about how I’ve been struggling with my own mortality for the past 18 months since having a near fatal bike accident (one inch and it would have been lights out.) Up to that point I felt like I had come to terms with my own mortality. I would often say that I believed that when the lights go out, they go out, and it’s all over. And I’m ok with it.
But last fall I realized I wasn’t. And during my depression at the beginning of 2013 I thought often about mortality, how I thought about it, whether I was bullshitting myself for the previous 25 years about being ok with it, and what really mattered about being alive, and being human.
I then handed things over to William. He proceeded to answer the question that had been asked, which was about morality, not mortality.
When he finished and I’d realized what had just happened, I emitted a gigantic belly laugh. And then for the next couple of hours I kept applying the lens of “what really matters” to the discussion about science fiction, entrepreneurship, and the human race.
From the meditation I’ve been doing, I’m definitely exploring “listening to my thoughts” rather than obsessing over them. I’m recognizing that the narrative I’m creating in my brain is just my narrative and doesn’t necessarily have any real meaning, or importance, at all. 150 years from now, I don’t believe any of it will matter. And then, suddenly, the great John Galt quote “It’s not that I don’t suffer, but that I know the unimportance of suffering” comes to mind.
Sometime during the fireside chat, the statement popped out that “I believe the human species dramatically overvalues its importance to the universe.” I think this is going to be a radical point of conflict with the evolution of machines over the next 50 years. At this stage, it’s a part of what gives our lives meaning. There are so many complicated things that happen on a daily basis that create stress, conflict, controversy, and emotional responses. All of them theoretically generate meaning, but when I “listen to my thoughts” I recognize the unimportance of them.
And then I start searching for what really matters. Both to me, and about being human.
See you Sunday.
William Hertling is currently my favorite “near term” science fiction writer. I just read a pre-release near-final draft of his newest book, The Last Firewall. It was spectacular. Simply awesome.
You can’t read it yet, but I’ll let you know when it’s available. In the mean time, go read the first two books in the trilogy.
They are also excellent and important for context for The Last Firewall. They are inexpensive. And they are about as close to reality while still being science fiction as you can get.
I define “near term science fiction” as stuff that will happen within the next 20 years. I used to read everything by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson. Gibson’s Neuromancer and and Stephenson’s Snow Crash were – until recently – my two favorite books in this category. Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom (TM) replaced these at the top of my list, until Hertling showed up. Now I’d put Daemon and The Last Firewall tied for first.
Amy and I were talking about this in the car today. Gibson, Sterling, and Stephenson are amazing writers, but their books have become too high concept. There’s not enough love and excitement for the characters. And the science fiction is too abstract – still important, but not as accessible.
In contrast, Hertling and Suarez are just completely nailing it, as is Ramez Naam with his recent book Nexus. My tastes are now deeply rooted with these guys, along with Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross.
If I was writing science fiction, this would be what I was going for. And, if you want to understand the future, this is what you should be reading.
I love reading science fiction. I started when I was ten-ish and have never stopped. While on vacation in Mexico recovering from my kidney stone surgery, I read a bunch of books including one science fiction book – Nexus by Ramez Naam (he sent me the pre-release.) It was awesome.
I was talking about science fiction with a friend. We started rattling off our favorite science fiction books. Asimov’s Foundation, Herbert’s Dune, and Niven’s Ringworld topped my list of classics. When we started talking about contemporary ones, I raved about Suarez (Daemon) and Hertling (Avogadro Corp). And I’ll read pretty much anything from Philip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein.
I’m going to go on a scifi reading rampage over the holidays. I need some new ideas to read.
What are your favorites?