Science and great character makes The Martian glow

Matt Damon is a lucky actor.  He’s been rescued more than once in film, but The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott, incorporates more science than usual in a Hollywood SF film. We expect great things of Ridley Scott, of course.  His credits are a litany of great SF films:  Alien, and Blade Runner to start.  (Prometheus is a Scott-directed prequel to Alien.)  Andy Weir, first-time novelist, crafts a great, admirable character for Damon to portray.  We cheer for him without question.  I felt a glow in my heart as I left the theater.

Weir’s reality-oriented, plucky character stranded on Mars a scant fifteen years from now is a refreshing change from broody, Byronic anti-heroes that so many movies offer, especially when destined for a slot on the “Oscar nominees” list.  Astronaut Mark Watney keeps his focus on the now, demonstrates a ferocious work ethic, only a few times thinking about his impending death to express concern about how his family will feel.  Moreover, he’s a scientist, whose knowledge of the scientific method and its implications preclude emotional drama.  “Mars will fear my botany powers!” and “I’m going to have to science the s___ out of this!” are  comic lines, but they prove Watney’s confidence in science, his love of it, and reassures us that science will get him through the days to come.  His level head and humor are truly heroic.  In the end, the world comes together to rescue Watney.

There are science quibbles, of course.  Can you really seal a fractured face-plate with duct tape?  Would Mars’ thin atmosphere support the fierce storms that rage over its surface to threaten Watney’s life twice?  (Being on Mars is no different from being in space as far as atmosphere is concerned.)  Can you really grow potatoes on Mars?  (They are growing lettuce on the International Space Station, it turns out.)  Reading Weir’s book, where Watney explains in greater detail his methods, makes it all the more credible.  I make it a rule to read a book before I see the film version, and am glad I did so here.  NASA is actually developing much of the technology that astronauts will use once they travel to Mars though the real space suits don’t look as cool. Weir doesn’t think we’ll get there until 2050, according to a Daily Mail article, but NASA hopes for an earlier voyage.

“The movie portrays the operational side of things pretty well.” says astro-critic Leroy Chiao, a former commander of the International Space Station.  (He’s done six space-walks, flew for NASA for 15 years, and spent 230 days in space.) “Astronauts and NASA think through every scenario as thoroughly as possible, and plan for every reasonable contingency. Still, we sometimes get surprised. In those cases, it is up to individual and collective creativity to solve the problem and try for a good outcome. The movie holds up on this account.”   Commander Chiao stressed that “during survival training, new astronaut candidates are drilled in never giving up. A big part of ISS training involves drills in isolating leaks and toxic-chemical release, as well as fighting and retreating from fire. You have to believe that you are going to survive, and practice how you are going to do it.”  Chiao takes the two rescue attempts to task, but does not go into detail since the article I quote from was released before the film opened.  (Read more on

Mars really does have big dust storms.  Some, which occur about every five Earth years, can encircle the planet, according to  Michael Smith, planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.  But Mars’ atmosphere is only one per cent of Earth’s.  Equipment would not fly off as the film shows, because even the strongest storms on Mars would not exceed 60 mph, less than half the speed of hurricane-force earth winds.  Likely, an astronaut would not get stranded on Mars, either.  But dust is a problem:  in Weir’s book, Watney’s carefully stacked solar cells can’t get power because storm dust blocks sunlight, which means he doesn’t have enough power to keep his water-reclamation and energy running.  Dust gets into everything, says Smith.  It interferes with machine parts, causing friction and also carries an electrostatic charge, so particles cling, like Styrofoam peanuts.  Scientists have tracked Martian dust storms for more than a century. Smith says we’re overdue for a big one. (

The duct tape?  That’s still a mystery, but there’s no mystery about The Martian.  It’s a terrific film, a cut above most SF offerings on screen.  See it twice.  I certainly plan to get the DVD when it comes out.  I’m sure I won’t be alone.

Be careful what you fish for . . .

Especially on the Internet.  In a routine internet search for books by Marion Zimmer Bradley to recover books for my much depleted collection, I found a notice from 2014 that the author of The Mists of Avalon, the Darkover series, and numerous others had repeatedly molested her children as they grew up.  Her daughter, Moira Greyland, reported that fact, says that she called the police on Walter Breen, MZB’s husband. Apparently, he was a repeat molester and spent the last years of life in jail.  I don’t know if he’s still alive.

Moira Greyland has published a poem on a web site about what sounded like an attempt to drown Moira in a bathtub.  It’s called “My Mother’s Hands.”  She says she was molested from age 3 to age 12, when she could walk away. MZB was the perpetrator, not Walter Breen. Everyone around MZB cloaked that information in silence to protect her reputation. I have heard nothing from the sons of MZB.  I think still yet that it’s harder for boys to report such matters, though mother-son molestation does happen.  I know people it has happened to.

Molestation happens to one in four women walking the streets.  It happened to me, and through therapy, I have learned much about what happens to the predator and how to cope with my past.  I know what it’s like and my heart aches for Moira Greyland.  In her case it had to be emotionally wrenching for the very fact that MZB was a famous author.  Others must have felt the need to protect MZB because of her prestige and fame, which made her more important and powerful than the repeatedly hurt and emotionally damaged child.  But in the house of any molested child, “don’t tell” is true, whether the perp is famous or obscure.  A family breakup is always imminent for a child who lives with a perpetrator and an enabling parent. That’s one layer of the fear the child carries within. The perp knows this, and uses that threat on a child, who wants so badly for the family to remain intact.  Every child longs for an intact family.  In many cases, it’s as hard to forgive the enabler, who could have helped the child escape, but chose not to, for whatever reason. It’s harmful if they leave for if divorce occurs, the child feels guilt, or if they stay to preserve family life, since the child has to pay the price of being molested.

This leads up to the point of this entry.  I had to throw my MZB books away.  I only had two: The Mists of Avalon and Lady of Avalon.  I couldn’t continue to have them in my house.  My mind kept itching on the matter.  My conscience, telling me that a wrong was being done.  In my larger collection, I had more: two were autographed.  I read and enjoyed the Darkover series, though there are other series I enjoyed more.  I never met MZB, but I’ve heard mixed reports.  She was not a favorite, but was an author I read and enjoyed.  Until now.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to read any book by MZB in future.  I don’t know if time will change my feelings, if I will get over the shock, but right now this knowledge changes the way I feel about her writings.  I can’t read them in the same way.  I tried last night.  I opened Mists of Avalon and the knowledge of what happened to Moira Greyland overshadowed every word.  I can’t  think of MZB in the same way.  I might have been able to forgive anything else.  But I was a molested child, and I can’t think of myself as a good person if I keep her work.

Separate the art from the person?  The art comes from the person.  Any high and noble sentiments contained in the art screams out “lie!”  I can’t suspend my disbelief. Any sin will change one’s view of the artist, but the fact remains that I shared similar experiences to those of Moira Greyland. Oh, no one tried to drown me, but there are fears and doubts and wounds that we carry because of our experiences.  Even if I have named myself Loreguardian, there is a time and a place where the lore ends, and reality reigns.

Muath al-Kaseasbeh

This 26 year old pilot was flying under Jordanian colors to fight IS.

This 26 year old pilot was flying under Jordanian colors to fight IS.

I do not usually post concerning current events, or on political matters, but in this case, I must make an exception. Every outlet I know of that I can use I intend to use to get this piece of information out. I do this to see that this man’s name is never forgotten.

Muath al-Kaseasbeh. Remember this man’s name. He was a 26 year old Jordanian pilot, brutally killed by the barbarian Islamic group called IS (Islamic State).  A Muslim, killed by others who claim to follow that religion, in the most extreme manner.  These are people who kill kids for watching socer matches.

I don’t know much about Muath al-Kaseasbeh. But I know they made him pose for a 22 minute video which could have been directed by a Hollywood film king. Then they put him into a cage, and burned him alive. Every minute of the video is out there online. If you are an adult, please search it out. Watch it, painful as it may be. People have to learn who these IS people are, what level of barbarity they are capable of, and what monstrous evil they represent. I am tempted to say that they are led by Satan, or at least one of the devil’s deputies. I can’t even imagine how any intelligent being could do this to any other human being. It’s simply beyond me.

After you see this film, tell others. Understand who the IS are, how monstrous they are, what they represent. Perhaps then, you may begin to see Muath al-Kaseasbeh as what he truly is: a hero and martyr who should be made famous.  As famous as any single-named celebutante or rap star, and much more deserving of that fame.

Maybe after that, America will waken, and react as she should:  with utter contempt for these monstrous killers, and with absolute solidarity with this young man.  We should behave as the new King  of Jordan has: King Abdullah is angry, and resolute.  We should be like that.  We are in the midst of a war, and it may last for years.  We must prepare to be ready for a long haul.


A Christmas Carol Playlist

I love Christmas music!  Not the oh so frantic “holiday cheer” songs (e. g. “Here Comes Santa Claus”)  or dreary “Silver Bells” (done like a dirge most every year, I groan each time I hear it).  It’s actually a pretty song;  it’s just been killed too often.  “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is cute the first one hundred times you hear it, as is “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.”  Cringe-worthy tunes that make me feel tired the minute they appear include “Blue Christmas,” and any Christmas tune sung by the late lamented Michael Jackson.  There’s always Bob Dylan, heaven forfend!  Makes me want to pack away the Christmas tree and head to Jamaica.  “Little Drummer Boy” can be a dirge, too—though Bob Seeger does a not-so-bad version.  Manheim Steamroller . . .

Now we’re getting somewhere.  I adore Manheim Steamroller and Trans-Siberian Railroad, two groups which do lots of surprising Christmas music.   “Pat-a-pan” is my very favorite Steamroller tune, though I also love “In Dulce Jubilo,” (a song I love most versions of), which hints at my love of medieval and Renaissance carols.  Then there’s TSR’s “Pachibel’s Canon / Merry Christmas.”  Secular Christmas classics I love include “Winter Wonderland,” (give me Annie Lennox!)  “Let It Snow” and “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” (Both by Bing, plase!)  “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” should only be performed by Nat King Cole.  Or perhaps Mel Torme, who wrote it.  Frank Sinatra did a nice one about Santa that’s bouncy and cheery (“Hickoy do and dickory dock, and don’t forget to hang up your sock!”).  And I always laugh at “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”  There are contemporary Christmas tunes that warm my spirit each time I hear them.  And they are:

“Do You Hear What I Hear?”  My absolute favorite Christmas tune, I recently found it was written in 1962, in response to the Cuban missile crisis as a prayer for peace.   I have mixed feelings about this little factoid.  I still haven’t decided whether I’d like to keep this bit of knowledge, or have it extracted from my brain.  (I pictured it as coming from the 1930s or WW II.) Bing Crosby does the best, fortunately, the most-played version, with choir.   I’ve heard some ballad-belting female singer try to climb this mountain of a song and . . . she murders it.  I don’t even want to figure out who tried it, but Mariah Carey may be one culprit.  Someone in her neck of the woods anyway, complete with uncessary trills, a cold tone, and notes forced far past her range.

Steamroller doesn’t offer the best version either, I admit.  This song sounds deceptively easy, but with key changes, long note-holds and the necessity to build with each verse, this is a demanding piece.  One must infuse it with warmth and faith —which requires singing it in a strong and vital manner, never pushing the range.  This song requires a huge range, strong suppoort and effortless control.  Much as I love Manheim Steamroller, an instrumental just doesn’t cut it!

Vince Guraldi’s jazzy “Charlie Brown Christmas.”  I could actually play this one year-round.  It’s cheerful, and includes songs that are poigniant (“Christmas-time Is Here”) and great piano that just keeps the energy going throughout.  Like a sparkling tree filled with lights and beautiful ornaments, it surprises with each hearing.

“Mary Did You Know?”  Another delightful song of faith, which requires the equipment of Bing and the faith of Billy Graham to put across.  I first heard this by Kenny Rogers, who does a lovely version. (I wish an equivalent could be written for Joseph.)  Not so many people have murdered this one, so it still sounds fresh.

“Grown Up Christmas List” is a beauty from Amy Grant.  Quiet, thoughtful, poigniant, and simple, but never simple to sing. Mostly has lived well within the world of gospel.

Grant has another favorite:  “Breath of Heaven.”  This is even more difficult; a singer must place herself in Mary’s shoes (oh, sure, easy!), and this song requires sensitive pacing, and dynamics.  One must stay on the edge of wonder, yet hold to the reality of the event.  Magnificent.

Sting does a delightful “I Saw Three Ships,” and of course does it justice.

This may be the first posting on Christmas tunes , for there are so many carols to remember!

Hallowe’en memories and musings

Hallowe’en, always.  That extra apostrophe is special, though I sometimes drop it.  Cultural pressure tends to make one lazy, but the day deserves that special mark.  Hallowe’en is an abbreviation of All Hallow’s Evening.  Fall arrives that day for me, not on September 21, and the mind turns to winter coming.  I like to celebrate each holiday in turn.  First, Hallowe’en, then Thanksgiving, then Christmas.  Our culture doesn’t let that happen.  They rush everything through.

I live in an apartment again, so probably won’t get trick-or-treaters tonight.  I’ll see pictures or posts with kids wearing cute costumes online, and despite reports of “chambermaid costumes for six year olds” (yech!) I’d like to think that girls will wear princess costumes from Disney’s latest and that boys still think Spiderman is cool.  So to celebrate Hallowe’en, I turn to thoughts and memories, and suggest some great Hallowe’en music treats to complement your foray into that wierd day when the dead walk because walls between worlds are thin, and they can get through.

This is a “stupid-stition” (an occasional neologism I use for superstition) but the notion runs through many cultures.  Ghost stories and tales of “walking dead” have been with us since the beginning.  We like being frightened, just for a while, and the best place to be frightened is safe at home with a bowl of popcorn and a copy of Dracula.

Many a church will substitute a Harvest Festival tonight, and have an indoor party.  I understand the impulse to keep kids safe, and avoid any truck with that nameless foe who walks the earth, restless for souls, itching to cause trouble.  But even on Halloween, “Greater is He who is in you than he that is in the world.”  Kids don’t need to fear the devil, if their hearts are filled with light.  So trick-or-treat with a flashlight, check the candy, take some photos and make a few fun memories.  Send the kids off with a prayer.

When we celebrated Hallowe’en, we were a little more inventive than most kids today.  Someone in the neighborhood created a haunted house.  They blindfolded you, sent you down to the basement, and turned on some ghostly music.  You stuck your hands into thickened jello, peeled grapes and spaghetti, representing parts of bodies. A ghostly voice intoned “this is the hea-a-a-r-r-t.”   It sent a shiver up many a nine-year old.  I’ve been to many more sophisticated “haunted houses,” where monsters jump out at you, and lights flash, but that neighborhood house was just as scary.  (Loveland Castle is a neat place to spend Hallowe’en.)

One Hallowe’en party, we threw shoes at each other, and told ghost stories.  (The trick was to make sure that no one saw you do it, and claim that a ghost did it.)  Trick-or-treating once with friends, I went toward someone’s house, and the girl I was with (I was new to the neighborhood) pulled me back, and in an amazed and scared whisper said “Don’t go up there;  she doesn’t believe in Hallowe’en!”  (This only made me more curious, but she went on to describe the home-owner as “a mean old witch.”  (A witch who doesn’t believe in Hallowe’en?  Hmm.  Story potential!) I dressed up as a ghost, a hobo, hula girl, or clown; I don’t remember my costumes as being glam or over-the-top. We made up our costumes from old clothes.  I didn’t like masks, because they often cut off my already bad vision, so I preferred making up and walking out with a flashlight.  I remember Mom putting make-up on me, a really special thing, since I wasn’t allowed to wear make-up any other day.  In those days, one could still burn leaves, and the smell of the smoke was always a special part of fall.  So was the crunch and scrape of leaves as we scuffed through gold-orange carpets or plunged into banks of red-brown leaves as we made our way to lighted houses where candy awaited us.  Sometimes we pushed each other into them, but we had business to attend to:  candy awaited, so we didn’t do that more than a time or two.  Naturally, we had to wear jackets out the door, but  always took them off down the street, and put them back on before we got to our own front porch.  Sometimes, the wind whipped through our costumes, but that only added to the shivers from fright.

In my home town, once you were fourteen, you couldn’t go about wearing masks anymore, so trick-or-treating ended, which brought me a pang of sadness.  I felt my childhood had ended.  That year, I decided I’d dress up and surprise the kids with my own costume, as I handed out treats.  I got as much joy out of seeing their faces and outfits as I did getting candy. Though I loved the sweets, for me, it was costumes and play-acting that really made the day so much fun.  That, the ghost stories and cider.

Now, I listen to music or watch scarey movies on Hallowe’en.  Midnight Syndicate is perfect:  any of their music. Loreena McKennit’s “All Souls’ Night” is also great to hear this time of year. Our church organist (who studied with Vergil Fox, Vergil Fox!  Wow!)  always plays the “Tocata and Fugue” (followed up with “Holy Holy Holy”) each Sunday before Hallowe’en.  It’s wonderfully appropriate, since All Soul’s day follows Hallowe’en.

For movies, I watch Frankenstein, Dracula, The Tell-Tale Heart or a Hammer film. (Premature Burial made my veins pound as a kid.)  None of those modern slasher movies, thank you:  get the classics!  They have an entirely different feel.  Skip the purple and orange lights, with creepy gray LED bulbs that look like the old static particles on TV.  They make a place darker, not in a good way. Jack o’lanterns, hay bales and a freaky witch would decorate my porch.  I love the animated brooms, ghouls and skeletons that respond to motion, though they scared me as a kid.  There’s some comfort in being a grown up.  Have a fun and happy Hallowe’en!

Novel Vampires and their makers

You may skip this if not interested, but if you think vampires have been “done to death,” you may not have read these.

Let me first say that I am speaking about true vampires, not  sparkly-skinned Edward Cullen or even the defanged vampires of P. C.  and Kristen Cast.  Vampires are deadly creatures, predators of the night.  They should remain that way.  Some revel in that status, others may try to find some cure, or long to become human (can we say Barnabas Collins?) but they still have to wrestle with their monstrous nature.  Part of the fun of reading a good vampire novel involves this very struggle.  To my mind, these perverse renditions of Twilight are akin to “the little fairies at the bottom of the garden,” as opposed to real fey—who are dangerous and tricky.  The Irish referred to the fairies as “the Good People” out of fear, not because of high regard.  They had to be placated.

Vampires don’t have to be blood-suckers, but it’s more fun when they are.  They should always be mysterious, dangerous to humans, and are certainly not creatures you want to cuddle up with.  (For one thing, they’re dead.)  If someone wants to cuddle up with a vampire, make him (or her) human at the end of the story.  Part of the fun of watching Dark Shadows (yes, I’m dating myself) was never being sure when Barnabas would become vampiric, though he strongly wished to be human.  Barnabas was also someone constantly trying to recapture the past—an essential part of being vampiric to my mind.

On to books. There are countless takes.  These are the best.

Begin, of course, with Dracula.  If you have not read this one, you have not yet experienced the taproot of the legend.  Victorian sensibilities abound in this novel, the mysteries are beautifully presented, and Dracula’s predatory nature is well-offset by Van Helsing’s passionate hunter-nature.  There’s nothing glam about Dracula.  He’s an old man when we first meet him, masquerading as human.  Stoker never lets you forget what he is, even when he’s trying to court Lucy.  In the end, he must be destroyed, because we cannot remain what we are unless he dies.
George R. R. Martin (long before Song of Ice and Fire) wrote a terrific vampire novel:  Fevre Dream.  The elements of riverboats, the search for a cure for vampirism, and an isolated plantation where a true predatory vampire sets up a struggle between predators and vamps who seek to cure a disease.  It’s slave vs. free.  It’s well-written.  Martin knows how to keep even the gentler vampires still on hunt, struggling against what they are.  Sink your teeth in, and enjoy.

Michael Talbot’s only good novel is The Delicate Dependency: A Novel of the Vampire Life.  This is a hard book to find, but well worth the search.  As any great vamp novel should, it takes place in the Victorian era (modern vamps are boring unless they have behind them a long history to explore).  The protagonist is a human, gradually pulled into the vampire world by a mystery.  Not a “whodunit,” so much as the search for knowledge, which, I think, is the point of the book.   Frankly, I wish this could become a film.  There are many great visual moments in it, and some truly unusual twists.

This is also true for Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.  Drawn into danger by an ancient book, the professor protagonist slowly uncovers information he finds very difficult to believe:  that Dracula exists.  As he learns more, he encounters greater dangers.  Here, we’re dealing with long-lived creatures—still creatures, mind—who struggle to preserve knowledge, perhaps as a way to justify their continued existence.  Despite Dracula’s veneer of civility (which he’s always had), he’s truly a monster—and one is never the same after one meets such a creature.

Dan Simmons wrote two novels with this theme—sort of.  Carrion Comfort is not a true vampire novel, but it’s very good, because he explores the world of the energy vampire, the mental predator.  The real issue here is the psychology of power, and that’s part of what makes the vampire so intriguing.  Simmons is one of the best writers bridging SF and fantasy, and a treat to read.  Children of the Night is his exploration of Vlad Dracul, and though set in the modern era (part in post-Ceaucescu Romania) his take links with the history of Dracul, and brilliantly portrays the normal against the abnormal.  Both are gems.

I’m conflicted about Anne Rice.  I enjoy her when she delves into histories, and there still is a predatory aspect to Lestat, but I also think she began the slide into glamorizing the vampire.  I personally prefer the first, Interview with the Vampire,  but the two following definitely make Lestat into a glamorous icon.  (Anyone who can stand in zillions of spotlights and become a literal rock star, as in Queen of the Damned,  is no longer a vampire.  To my mind, that much light would turn Lestat into a crispy critter.)  She’s done some good work:  I much prefer her Mayfair Witch series, and her current exploration of werewolves.  Read her and judge for yourself.

When You’re in the Hands of a Literary Master . . .

You pick up a book and by the time you’ve finished the first page, you’re hooked.

The world that the writer creates feels so real that when the phone rings or your family calls you to dinner, you feel disoriented and in shock for a few seconds.

By the time you finish the third chapter, you feel as if you know the main character.  You may love that person, or hate them, but you feel that this is a full-bodied, living, reasoning, feeling person.

Any time you have to put down the book, you feel regret, and keep wondering when you can get back to that book.  It nags at you, taps you on the shoulder, your mind wanders to remembering incidents, or speculating about what might happen next.

The further you go in the book, the faster you want to read.   You lose track of time, and stay up all night.

By the time you get to the end, you feel regret that the story is over, but you want to read it again, either immediately or later.  The story lives and grows in your mind.

You wonder what happens to the characters once the story ends.

Three months later, you still remember the names of characters.

Language may catch your emotions up at some point if you’ve developed a sensitivity to it.  This is usually a second-reading reaction, but if the writer’s style is appealing, it may catch your emotions on the first go-round.  This is rare.  Good style does not call attention to itself, but wraps you into the world, holding you there.

You go back to your treasured book,  read it more than once, and develop favorite parts that you read again.

You want to grab others and tell them: read this book!  You don’t because you feel like a nut, but if you get a chance, you recommend it to friends, or to sites like this.

Needless to say, a book this good is rare, especially if all of these points apply.  The book may be a literary classic, or a “guilty pleasure.”  That depends on you, but the more you read, the more selective you’ll be.  That all-encompasing experience may happen more rarely, but it will still happen.

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