#REVIEW: Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto, by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon

Longest post title ever? Possibly. Gotta love nonfiction books.

This is known: there exists an alternate-universe version of me who has a Ph.D and works as either an astronomer or a planetary geologist. I’ve been fascinated by this stuff for as long as I can remember, and every now and again I really wonder how it is that I didn’t take all that much math and science in college.

(Actually, I know why that’s true. My current enjoyment of mathematics dates to realizing how fascinating statistics was when I had to take a stats class for my … oh, wait, I was a Psychology major, among other things, so I guess I did have to take a fair number of science classes in college.)

(Let’s say “hard science” classes and piss off the psychology people. Like, science with math, which– other than stats– Psychology really doesn’t trouble itself all that much with. Shut up you know what I mean.)

Anyway. I followed the New Horizons mission with no small degree of fascination, and the data they’ve acquired about Pluto and its associated moons is endlessly interesting. Earlier this year the spacecraft did a flyby on a Kuiper Belt object now known as Arrokoth, and I believe there’s at least one more KBO flyby planned before the craft is shut down. Stern and Grinspoon’s book isn’t so much about the science, or about Pluto, however; it’s about the 20-plus-year effort to get the mission to explore the ninth planet(*) approved and the political and scientific process by which the mission itself actually came to be. As it turns out, there were a lot of people who for one reason or another didn’t want New Horizons to happen, and the mission was either actually cancelled or nearly cancelled five or six times, to say nothing of the number of times where something went wrong with the craft itself. For example, I wasn’t aware that they lost contact with the craft just a few days before the Pluto flyby began, and the book’s description of the mad scramble to not only reestablish contact with the by-then-several-billion-miles-away craft but to then slowly re-upload a bunch of mission-critical code updates before the thing sped by Pluto at thousands of miles per hour is compelling as hell.

So, yes– this book is less a work of popular science or a textbook about Pluto than it is a book about history and politics. It’s about the mission, not the planet, and while I wasn’t quite aware of that when I picked it up it’s no less of a good read for it– I’m always down to read something about NASA’s inner workings, and some of the squabbling that takes place between Caltech’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins over who was going to actually design and build the spacecraft that eventually became New Horizons is pretty damn cool. One way or another, while I haven’t read a ton of nonfiction this year I’m glad I finally let this stop languishing on my shelf and picked it up. You’ll probably see it mentioned again in a month or so, when I write my 10– or possibly 15– best books of the year post for 2019. In the meantime, check it out.

(*) For most of the book, Pluto is very much considered a planet, and the authors’ open derision toward the new definition of “planet” that reclassified Pluto is hilarious. Needless to say, for these guys Pluto is the ninth planet and it ain’t going anywhere.

#REVIEW, sorta: ARTEMIS, by Andy Weir

41rdzW8wCHL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

Sophomore books are a bitch and a half, man.  You’ve got literally your entire life to get that first book written and ready to go and completely 100% perfect, right?  And then if your first book is a big hit, you’ve only got at most a year or two to get that sophomore effort out the door.  Some authors end up with a second effort that is every bit as brilliant as their first: I point at April Daniels, whose Dreadnought and Sovereign I both read in 2017 and… well, wait a few weeks to see how well those turn out.  Or somebody like Kevin Hearne, whose first three Iron Druid books came out in something like six months and were somehow all of equivalent high quality.

At the other end of the spectrum is Ernest Cline, whose second book was so bad that it called my high opinion of his first into question, highlighting every single weakness of his writing and somehow diminishing both books.  We kinda want to avoid that.

Andy Weir’s The Martian was a brilliant book; my favorite book of 2014.  I talked the other day about the annoying similarities Martian and my own Skylights have, and the fact that I plan at the moment to follow up Skylights with a book involving the Moon, and, well, so did fucking Andy Weir.  So it’s kind of hard to review the book entirely independent of my own shit, right?  I know I’m not on remotely the level that Weir is, obviously, and that most of this shit’s only in my head, but I don’t want copies ideas from more well-known authors as a thing that’s hanging over my head.

Well, here’s the good thing:  other than being set on the moon, Artemis doesn’t have a damn thing in common with what I have planned for Moonlight.  Not a single damn thing.  The cover is also annoyingly similar to the cover I put together for the bookyears ago, which really pisses me off because I still love that cover and I may not be able to use it now.  But I’ll worry about that once the damn thing is written.

But anyway: is the book any damn good?  Well, there’s a reason I started this piece the way I did: while Artemis is is not as good of a book as The Martian was, and the places where it isn’t as good kind of are things that show weaknesses in The Martian, it’s still a really solid effort.  In some ways it’s a very different book; the main character is a female, at least nominally Muslim smuggler, which one would think would be a very different person from corn-fed Iowa botanist Mark Watney.(*)  And the thing is, she’s not.  She’s Mark Watney in niqab.  And since Mark Watney was basically Andy Weir, as he’s admitted in reviews… well, so is Jazz Bashara.   And while Watney’s constant science-and-chemistry talk made sense in-book, as he was trying to keep himself alive, Jazz’s kind of feels forced.  Like, I know she’s on the Moon, but so is everyone else in the book, and the constant science asides don’t work as well.

That said, I’m a huge astronomy geek, so while it bugs me on a craft level it’s fascinating on a bunch of other levels, which kept me from disliking the book.  I liked Artemis, but I absolutely didn’t love it, and after his first book owned 2014, that can’t help but be a bit of a disappointment.

(*) Okay, maybe he’s not from Iowa.  Maybe he is?  That sounds right.  I’m not looking it up.  He’s sure as hell not a Muslimah.

On overthinking things

vFZ9eminem-hi-my-name-is-slim-shady-name-tag-design-4-x-2.jpgSo technically we’re supposed to wear nametags when we’re at work.  In practice this almost never happens unless there’s a corporate visit coming; sometimes someone will put theirs on for the hell of it and then it tends to spread virally; if a shift starts with one person wearing a nametag, everyone will have theirs on by the end of that shift, but it usually doesn’t happen.

Our previous work nametags are pretty utilitarian; they’ve got the corporate logo on them and a space for your name (printed on a laser printer and slid into a little hole on the side) and that’s it.  Recently for some reason corporate has decided that our nametags need to be more “fun.”  And we have a visit coming by a Lord High Muckety-Muck next week, and so the new, fun name tags need to be at least ordered if not actually on everyone’s shirts.

They require that, in addition to our names, we reveal our hometowns and, and this is the kicker, a passion.  Like so:

NAME:
Luther

HOMETOWN:
Chicago, IL

PASSION:
Butt stuff

Only it can’t say “butt stuff,” because, I dunno, reasons, and I also have to admit that I grew up here in Somewhere in Northern Indiana, which I find vaguely annoying.  I should have just put Chicago and dared someone to correct it.

The problem is that “passion” part.  One, I’m philosophically opposed to it.  I’m a goddamn furniture salesman.  I know that connecting with customers is supposed to be a great help in making sales and blah blah blah, but goddammit I’m at work and I’m doing my job and the fact that you want a chiffarobe does not entitle you to know shit about my life.   

Plus, it has to be something that’s not intrinsically alienating to any substantial percentage of our customer base, and it has to be something that doesn’t lead to conversations with customers that I don’t want to have.  So, for example: I could say politics!  I am, in fact, passionate about politics!  Only no, because the last fucking thing I want to talk to any of my customers about is politics for a wide variety of reasons.  I could say writing!  That is also a true thing!  The only problem with that is that it leads to talking to people about my writing, which I really don’t want to do at work, and even if they happen to be sci-fi/fantasy people who might enjoy my work, handing them one of Luther’s cards would lead them back here, and that opens all sorts of potential cans of worms that I don’t really want open.  I don’t badmouth my customers all that damn often and it’s incredibly rare (I can’t think of any examples, in fact, although I’m sure there are some) that I tell stories about specific individuals but still.  I don’t need those worlds mixing.  Books?  Okay, but I don’t want to get into talking about reading (or the fact that my customers don’t read) with every jamoke who reads my name tag.

The other possibility is to make it a joke.  I spent a long time considering just putting “Apples” as my passion, because hell, who doesn’t like apples?  Another one I considered:  extispicy, which is fortunetelling using the entrails of sacrificed animals.  My manager shot that down for some reason, and pointing out that another staff member had chosen “charcuterie” did not gain me any points.

I ended up picking astronomy, which means that I’ll be explaining the difference between astronomy and astrology a lot.  But it’s true and will probably not lead to obnoxious conversations.  Fact of the matter is, once the muckety-muck is gone I will go right back to not wearing the nametag, so any amount of thought past the first five minutes that I put into this is probably wasted time anyway.  But what the hell.  I gotta do something when I’m not selling furniture.

In which I am content

unnamedI admit it: I’m feeling slightly guilty right now about the fact that I’m not going to work again this week.  The note from my doctor specifically said that I was not to return to school before November 2nd, and the main reason was that we wanted to check on the new medication.  Well, so far, the new medication’s been fine, although I can come up with at least one example in the last couple of weeks where I was fine one day and emphatically Not Fine for several days after that.  Point is, I’m following orders.

I’d be off today anyway, though, because for the first time we have a fall break, and today is the last day of that fall break.  As it turns out, the preschoolers at Hogwarts (have I mentioned this?  From now on, my kid’s school is Hogwarts) had a field trip today, and they went to a farm in southern Michigan– here, specifically.  They put out a general call for chaperones last week and since I didn’t really have anything else I needed to be doing today (again, I’d have been off of work anyway) I decided to tag along.  And… well, it was a hell of a lot of fun, actually.  There’s perfect October weather outside.  We went on a hayride and explored the farm and picked and ate apples and grapes right off the tree (or vine, as the case happened to be) and the boy got a pumpkin to bring home with him.  There are now four pumpkins in the house; I probably ought to get thinking about what I’m going to do when I carve mine, because I wanna do something fun and creative and having an idea of some sort would probably help with that goal.


Speaking of perfect October weather, I was lucky enough last night to get a gorgeous one-day-before-full moon and a completely cloudless sky, so I hauled out the telescope.  I need to get an attachment to make taking pictures easier, but I did manage this one:

12182876_10153650016703926_8310585354936813748_o

Searching for Malumba is out tomorrow!  I’ve officially hit my goal for pre-orders, but if you want to make me even happier, it’s available in print and digitally here.  Expect more about that tonight.  🙂

I’ll just leave this here

The article doesn’t say “Dyson sphere,” and the whole idea is ridiculous, but holy shit they found a Dyson sphere.