Writing about Reading Double Feature: The Martian and Saga

May 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

It’s fitting that I’m cramming two book reviews into one post because I read both The Martian and Saga at the same time. I started The Martian first, then got Volume 1 of Saga, so I paused and devoured it in an hour. And I was hooked, so I got Volumes 2 and 3, devouring them as they arrived and going back to The Martian in between.

That pretty much tells you how awesome both are.

I’m a one-book-at-a-time kinda guy. I get too confused if I try to read more than one at a time, but since Saga is a graphic novel and The Martian is a traditional novel, I figured I could keep them straight. What I didn’t count on is that they would both be some freakin’ amazing that I couldn’t get enough of either one.

Let’s start with The Martian, by newcomer Andy Weir. Weir is a software engineer and has been professionally since he was fifteen. He’s also “a lifelong space nerd and a devoted hobbyist of subjects like relativistic physics, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight.” You know, normal everyday hobbies. So yeah, Andy Weir is a genius.

But he’s also a damned good storyteller. Combine the two, and it makes for one very compelling novel.

The book is, in a nutshell, about Mark Watney, an astronaut who is left for dead when his crew bugs out during a storm on Mars. Problem is, he’s not dead, and they’ve left him with no way to call for help. But he does have a) a working habitat, b) enough food and supplies to survive for a while (but not until the next Mars mission arrives), c) a very good brain, and d) enough time to figure out how to stay alive until the next mission arrives in four years. Oh, and he also has a wickedly sardonic sense of humor.

Using his engineering and botany knowledge, Watney overcomes challenge after challenge. In the hands of a less talented writer, the repetition of “something tries to kill Watney/Watney figures out a way to survive” might get tedious. Weir manages to keep it not only entertaining, but damned compelling. At times, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. And Weir also has a deft sense of how the media (in particular, CNN) would react to a man being left behind on Mars with little hope for survival. Basically, Weir’s written a book that’s impossibly to put down.

Unless you also have Saga on your nightstand.

Oh, man, Saga. I don’t even know where to begin to talk about how incredible this series is. Let’s start with the art, since it’s a graphic novel (or “comic book,” if you’re an unwashed heathen). It’s beautiful. Fiona Staples has done a killer job of adding to the weird, wild universe that Brian K. Vaughan has created. Or maybe they created it together. I don’t know how these things work. It’s probably some kind of dark magic. (Actually, Vaughan created the universe when he was bored in math class. So more dull gray algebra than black alchemy, I suppose.)

Anyway, the point is the artwork in these graphic novels is lustrous. I would frame and hang each and every panel on my wall. Well, maybe not the panels with the giant naked troll. Or some of those — you know what, let’s just say I’d hang most frames on my wall, and keep the rest for Halloween and giving nightmares to people I don’t like.

To summarize the plot is to risk turning you away, because on the surface, the story arc of Saga sounds kind of ho-hum: a man and a woman on opposites sides of a war meet and fall in love, and they have a baby. What makes it not ho-hum is that both sides want to kill them and the child, and they’ve sent their best killers and a few hired guns to get the job done.

But what makes the story really fantastic are all the weird-ass characters and their sharp, snappy, and absolutely hilarious dialogue. You think George Lucas’s universe is populated with weirdos? Star Wars is freakin’ buttermilk compared to the phantasmagorical realm Vaughan and Staples have conjured up. Robots get pregnant. Starships are made of wood and grow in forests. A girl ghost with her guts hanging out is a nanny. Sounds ridiculous, right? It’s not.

Ultimately, that’s what blows my mind; Saga is a series that shouldn’t work. It should be a hot mess, but it’s one of the coolest, most entertaining stories I’ve read in a long time. It is (as one of my friends calls all comics) “four-color crack.” And I am utterly, hopelessly hooked.

The hardest thing about reading Saga is that Volume 4 isn’t out yet. In fact, the individual issues just started coming out again, so it will be a long wait for Volume 4. I’m trying to resist buying the monthlies because I know I’ll just buy the volume again when it comes out, but … well, I’m jonesing, man. I’m jonesing hard.

If you loved Jeff Noon’s Vurt or Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Queen City Jazz—or if you just like damned good, funny, weird, wild space operas—you’ll love the hell out of Saga. And if you don’t, I’m not sure we can be friends, because you may be a robot of some kind. A heartless, soulless robot.

So there you go: two terrific titles, four fantastic books. Enjoy!

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