Book Reviews - US Review of Books

How We’ll Live on Mars

by Stephen L. Petranek
Simon & Schuster

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“There are some wildcards in terraforming Mars, including the possibility of reawakening ancient life-forms.”

President Nixon’s legacy, and resulting long shadow over history, rests with two monumental blunders unknown to most people. He took the US dollar off the gold standard, resulting in a global currency destabilization that may soon come home to roost. In addition, he canceled the Saturn V rocket—the largest rocket ever assembled by mankind, the rocket that would have launched astronauts to Mars. Without either of those decisions, the US space program might have already colonized the red planet and would have the money to accomplish it.

After a fifty-year malaise, NASA lacks both the funding and the technological will to get the job done. Although it appears to be catching up for lost time, it has purposefully suffered from a presidential lack of vision leading from Nixon to Obama. In short, the US is decades behind where it should be. Make no mistake about it; going as far back as the Mercury Program days and beyond, Mars has always been the goal. Its similarity to Earth and its close proximity to the mineral-rich asteroid belt make it the ultimate target within our solar system.

Petranek covers the basics of a potential trip to and the colonization of Mars in what appears to be a reprint of a TED lecture rather than any in-depth discussion on the topic. Still, he covers the necessary points regarding why, how, and then what happens next. Achieving Mars will be complicated. If cutting-edge engine technology doesn’t pan out, the trip will be a minimum of six to ten months, all the while exposing humans to an unprecedented level of radiation that doesn’t cease once they reach the planet. On the surface, humans must immediately tend to the basics of food, water, oxygen, and shelter. Temperatures range from 80 degrees to -225 degrees Fahrenheit, and the atmosphere is toxic. Luckily but not easily, Mars has water frozen at the poles, in regolith rock, and perhaps below the surface, and if you can reclaim water, you can make all the oxygen you require.

The author sticks with the theory that travelers to Mars will never return to Earth. This opposes a more ambitious plan for a Mars cycler commuting between planets while carrying passengers and cargo. Regardless of the approach, early arrivals to Mars will need to bring everything they need to survive, but to establish a colony, they’ll need to generate all vital staples on-site, including growing plants to eat and creating parts for repair and construction. Eventually they’ll go about the process of terraforming the surface to sustain life. A few theories regarding this latter transformation are kicked around in this book as well.

At times, the author pays too much homage to private enterprise players such as Elon Musk, but given NASA’s slowed pace and funding, it’s logical that humans aren’t going to reach Mars without the commercial interests of partners. Virtually no great human migration has been accomplished on idealism alone. For example, Christopher Columbus, like the Vikings before him, traveled to the New World in search of treasure for his homeland. Later on, the Pilgrims arrived via private funding with the hope of establishing a regular income stream for their investors.

Mars is the New World, and like the explorers that preceded them on Earth, travelers to Mars will go to change their lives, discover new frontiers for the species, and harvest the planet’s riches. Before long, our descendants will not return to Earth, but become Martians for future generations. This book provides an overview of how that might happen.

Book Reviews - US Review of Books

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space

by Janna Levin
Knopf

“We see evidence of black holes destroying neighboring stars. We see evidence of super black holes in centers of galaxies… But we have never really seen a black hole, which only adds to the thrill of the prospect of hearing them.”

Astronauts returning on the space shuttle once told this former satellite designer and space program physicist: “You have no idea how much gravity is pulling down on all of us.” Home from the sheer joy of weightlessness in space, the dynamics of gravity were suddenly made real, pulling their shoulders and compressing their spines closer to Earth. It was a reminder of one of the universe’s illusive mysteries—gravity. We can measure and explain it, but we cannot see or hear it… yet. Physicist and writer Janna Levin takes us on the journey to detect, listen for, gravitational waves as the byproduct of a gigantic collision between black holes.

In simple terms, black holes form an incredibly dense mass. For scientists, this is where the fun begins. Since mass is an essential component of gravity, the extreme density of black holes will crush atoms and even bend light under its own weight. Yes, light has weight, and therefore one cannot really see a black hole, because light becomes trapped inside of it.

Decades ago, the movie Black Hole depicted a spacecraft passing through a black hole. This is science-fantasy. Anything with mass in close proximity to a black hole will not pass through it. Instead, the atoms of the spacecraft and the crew inside will become so densely packed that the result will no longer be visible to the naked eye, not to mention eliminating the viability of the spacecraft and its occupants. A black hole generates pressure of astronomical proportions. In a world of unnecessary hyperbole, it’s literally appropriate to apply the description “astronomical proportions” to a black hole.

For the purposes of Levin’s book, as two of these monster black holes draw near, anomalies in gravity will create waves that ring through space, but by the time they reach the Earth, they will be so slight that they will not be felt or heard by even the knowing. So what device will be needed to detect this phenomenon? By the mid-twentieth century, planning for and construction of full scale gravitational wave listening devices began on several international fronts. The devices needed to be big. The largest, called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), is run by Caltech and spans four square kilometers at two separate locations. Within its vacuum environment, LIGO waits for disturbances in a reflected laser beam as a means of sensing and measuring the dragon itself—gravity in the form of waves. It’s an enormous undertaking of scope, time, and funding.

With crisp storytelling, Levin tracks the creators of LIGO as it moves from thought to reality. Decades in the making, the success of this device is yet to be seen and, as some might say, hardly the point. It is another step in unlocking the mysteries of the universe. The geniuses of science will continue to tweak their experiments, conjure new frontiers to explore, and draw us closer to understanding. The field of scientists pursuing gravitational wave detection come from all corners of the world, and they are uplifted and hindered by their personalities. Humanity is the factor in the equation that’s impossible to measure. Beyond anticipated brilliance, we find professional paranoia, backbiting, and of course politics. However, the work proceeds with the relentless dedication of a monk, the ambition of a CEO, and at times the ruthlessness of a pirate.

Levin sketches the story with impressive color, while providing Polaroid-like narratives of the people and places along this scientific frontier. She is the type of science writer who can explain complex topics in understandable terms. In relating the beloved wizards and weirdos of the laboratories, she has brought the high-minded down to earth. That feat is as rare as hearing gravity, and it reveals the genuine process of discovery. History often documents invention as brilliant strokes of insight wrought to fruition, but Levin shows its plodding pace that spans decades, as well as its inevitable wrong turns into blind alleys and heartbreaking miscues that destroy careers. No doubt, her students at Barnard love to sit in on each lecture—scientists and laymen alike. If we had a device that measured passion, Levin would ring the meters and sound the alarms.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Writing Passion… Obsession

We are told that obsession is wrong. However for any artist, their craft is an obsession. We split our thoughts between the task at hand and our projects in waiting. We search for channels of inspiration even within the mundane. We passionately revise and rework. Time spent working can be absorbing and rewarding, while time spent away from our art can be breathless. Long droughts away from work transform life into a spiritual desert. For most artists, everyday life forms the gaps between creating the new.

“You become what you think about all day long.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

The question of whether or not you will write is not one of “if” but a question of “when.” Dedicated writers offer their best hours to their craft. For many, this is the morning hours after the soul of the artist emerges from its nighttime meditation. Throughout the centuries, great minds have cultivated a habit of pondering questions prior to sleep, often awaking with viable solutions. Sculptures, songs, and stories can be structured in this way. Rare connections can be achieved with the constant mulling through the woods of disparate ideas.

“Even when I’m dead, I’ll swim through the Earth, like a mermaid of the soil, just to be next to your bones.”  -Jeffrey McDaniel

When these connections are made, they are not only unique; they are universal. They strike a person’s soul in the way truth satisfies the mind. It resolves. It lingers. It is the most an artist can ask for, and it calls upon all of the writer’s best energies.

“I would like to be the air that inhabits you for a moment only. I would like to be that unnoticed and that necessary.” -­Margaret Atwood

Being obsessed with your writing is not only good; it is required. A half-hearted effort can get an artist through the laundry, dinner, and most tasks at their day job, but writing requires every resource at optimum speed.

The Art and Necessity of Writing Longhand

Publishing barriers have collapsed, and most of the stigma of self-publishing has been erased. Even the act of writing has become easier. The personal computer, which helped launch the Information Age, allows for the accelerated gathering and storing of information. A writer can compose a book for publication in months or even weeks.

I shuddered when a bestselling author in the mid-twentieth century described penciling-in changes on typewritten pages and then retyping each page for the publisher whenever necessary. Moreover, the initial draft was probably written in longhand. The time and labor involved in composing a book had once taken years, but the finished product was undeniably a solid manuscript. Today, the wonderful tools that help a writer to type, revise, and copyedit a manuscript in a fraction of the time have produced the most rushed prose known to human history.

Hardly anyone wants to write an entire draft in longhand or return to the typewriter days, but how can the thoughtfulness of the past be recaptured in a modern manuscript? For books and feature-length articles, it helps to keep a written journal that contains both research and narrative fragments at the very least. While there are many approaches to journaling, let’s take a look at few at its benefits.

A journal is a file cabinet for research. As information is gathered, even for works of fiction, it is difficult to know what will be used in the final manuscript, but it is certain that most of it will not. A journal guarantees that the right information will be saved.

The writer’s notebook holds ideas for the outline, narrative, or plot. During the initial draft, it is difficult to know the correct direct of a longer work. Even if a faulty path is taken, better options might be saved within a journal for subsequent revisions.

A journal provides time for burning off emotional energy in a place separate from the first draft. Emotions are not logic, and even works of fiction require sound construction. While emotional prose resonates on the page, false narratives compromise the entire book. Giving emotions time to settle in a journal allows the writer to cull authenticity from the feelings.

The mere act of writing adds a physical dimension, which extends back to the collapse of the Third Ming Dynasty when the first writers were born from unemployed scribes. This is our legacy and should never be forgotten. It takes much longer to write on paper than banging words into a computer. As a result, computer drafts are often flabby and wandering, but when committing potential words to paper (words that are not so easily deleted), writers pause to consider the correct language and exact word choices. (If you are doubting the increased care and consideration that attends the act of writing, consider typing a birthday greeting for a friend inside an e-mail and then consider writing it inside a card to be mailed.)

Author Robert McPhee says it takes him three years to compose a book: one for research, another for organizing, and another for writing. Obviously a lot of thinking goes into each of his books, and it shows. He is an award-winning writer and multiple Pulitzer finalist. It clearly pays to consider thinking about your words more carefully by using a journal.

Christopher Klim is the senior editor of the US Review and the author of several books including True Surrealism and Idiot!. During a plane flight, he used a journal to outline and annotate this article.

Suggesting Readings:

The Book Killers: Stilted Writing

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

The word stilted is defined as stiff, self-conscious, and/or unnatural. In a book, this concept is just as unwelcomed. For example…

It was a starry night. An owl flew low beneath the moon. Joe loved Jane so much that he thought his heart might burst. But nothing would stand in their way now. He swept her off her feet and carried her through the threshold of their lives together.

“Stop right there,” said the shadowy figure coming from behind the light post.

“No, not you!” Jane gasped.

“Have you forgotten about your husband?” the stranger barked.

“Sir, you must reconsider your approach,” Joe said.

The above passage forms a parade of clichés, passive verbs, hackneyed concepts, repetitions, invariable sentence structure, overly formal speech, and talking heads. Neither entertaining nor enlightening, these issues combine to stultify the reader. Let’s discuss a few of these problems.

Clichés, passive verbs, repetitions, overly formal speech, and even hackneyed concepts boil down to laziness on part of the writer. To complicate their existence, writers may become comfortable with these phrases and scenes during multiple readings to the point where a false sense of confidence in the prose arises. This is why cooling off periods—days or weeks if allowable between revisions—are vital to identifying problematic writing. Try to think of these issues as placeholders that will be replaced with stronger phrasing and construction. If the writer is not surprised or energized by his/her words, then no one else will be.

Talking head syndrome occurs when the characters provide information that either they should already know (i.e. “Hello, I’m Bob, your uncle.”) or barely relates to the conversation. This happens when the writer tries to relate narrative information through the character’s mouths. It is always obvious, and it saps momentum and authenticity from the work. In the example above, the entire dialogue should be replaced.

Invariable sentence structure, which is typically a repetition of subject-verb sentences without changes in presentation or structure, reveals the writer’s skill level or lack thereof. Fluctuations stimulate the reader’s mind. Changing sentence structure also is used in relation to the tone of the story. For example, short and quick sentences work for action scenes and humor, especially punch lines. Longer sentences can be found in romantic prose. Leading and trailing phrases form a variety of transitions. The list here is long and can be observed in any good literature and nonfiction narrative.

Many early writers are so eager to get their ideas on paper that they overlook the words themselves. On face value, that statement seems like a paradox, but it is only the normal course of a writer’s development. Skilled writers won’t accept stilted writing in their work, and during the revision process, they learn to identify their particular bad habits and eliminate them.

Here’s a cliché: All writing is rewriting. It also happens to be an axiom of the process.

Next in the The Book Killers series: Unfocused Openings

Previously in The Book Killers series: Inferior Word Choice 

Are literary writers given enough time?

It’s an old saw but worth revisiting as literary sensibilities cross genres.

Hear Us Falling

Hoffman’s point about literary writers not being given enough time to develop themselves and find an audience feels about right, it seems like if you haven’t “made it” and conjured a decent audience within 1 or 2 books you quickly fall down the ranks so to speak – there are examples of literary writers whose first books were on big name publishers, who for whatever reason didn’t develop a audience, and who are now publishing with smaller presses (obviously there could be a number of reasons why their apparent “failure” occurred it might not simply be that they weren’t “given enough time” but it’s an interesting aspect to consider in a culture increasingly obsessed with instantaneous “results”).

One caveat to this whole debate is the fact that it’s hard to get an idea of how this worked back in the day – how many literary writers didn’t make it after…

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The Beginning of the Affair: What the US Review Sees in Book Starts

Again and again, we notice a pattern at the start of a successful book. Great nonfiction, a genre designed to inform, employs a compelling narrative to connect with the reader, while great fiction, a genre for storytelling, informs the reader about life. Each genre delves into the others’ skill set to engage and teach with equal measure. The nexus between the two is universal truth, and after only a few pages, the reader must desire to uncover the truth in a book.

“With the truth, you need to get rid of it as soon as possible and pass it on to someone else.”Jean Baudrillard

The question in any book is equally about what the author has learned as much as what the reader needs to discover. If the author has done the work, both aspects are featured up front—as in immediately at the start of the book. A successful nonfiction effort presents the lesson plan and suggests what the reader will take away, while fiction launches the journey and hints at a possible ending. For both, the essence of the book is either overtly mentioned or found in the subtext (i.e. tone, setting, pacing, etc.). The author is in control from the start—not the second, third, or fourth chapter. This might seem obvious, but too often while reading a book for review, we encounter directionless narratives. While we’ll eventually uncover its main thrust, the average reader will not, having moved on long before it reaches that point.

“Life will not bear refinement. You must do as other people do.”Samuel Johnson

Every book has a singular purpose. This is why editors, booksellers, and the media are constantly asking for a tagline: What is the single sentence description of the book? They know that a reader won’t pick up a book unless it is well defined and promises the aforementioned truth. The book’s opening pages affirm that this truth will be fulfilled. By this point, the reader has traveled a long way on the journey and is probably hooked. Whether it’s an excellent biography on Benjamin Franklin or a tawdry human-dinosaur sex romp—yes, those books exist—the purpose and direction are established with lightning speed and often within the first few paragraphs.

“There is no such thing as chaos. It’s just a pattern you haven’t learned to recognize yet.”Albert Einstein

The complexity of an opening narrative widely ranges from genre to genre and from author to author, but the work required from the author hasn’t changed in centuries. Readers, who comprise the most intelligent segment of society but are overwhelmingly not writers, have been trained to sniff out the truth or utility of a book in short order. A book that quickly establishes its predominant narrator, tone, and story question/thesis holds the reader for the duration, as well as the next book by the same author.

“[Writers] achieve clarity in a preponderance of words, as opposed to the poundage of the pages. Smart writers are greedy with words.”Write to Publish, Christopher Klim

During November, the US Review of Books will be giving away free book reviews, focusing on the all important first chapter. Visit us for details.