Mission: Flight to Mars (A Review)

Cover of book.

Cover of Jeffrey’s book.

Review by Curtis Cole

                Remember Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon? No? Of course not, you are probably too young; I will jog your memory: Buck Rogers (and others) was the campy sci-fi of yesteryear, the kind with an everyman protagonist and special effects which, let’s just say, “stood out” (re: sucked). This was the kind of science-fiction which acted as a precursor to Star Wars; of depicting space as the new Wild West daring humanity to tame it against the alien hordes. Mission: Flight to Mars author V.A Jeffrey takes such a canon as her inspiration. Unfortunately such grandeur seems to have missed its mark for Jeffrey’s first installment in her epic sci-fi series is sorely deprived of every cornerstone of enjoyable sci-fi: believable characters, a coherent and well-written plot, and interesting technologies… none is to be found here! But let me explain.

The protagonist of the novel is a quality assurance agent working at an android construction assembly line. Bob Astor is his name and he’s sticking to it (unfortunately)… along with everything else, for you see, Bob is a severely lacking protagonist. He is a spinelessly confusing lead and is among the most naïve lead characters I have ever read (including those purposefully written as naïve by their authors), as he leaps into situations which he has no business being involved with, all for reasons left largely unexplained by the author. I associate Bob’s attitude to that of an absent-minded child wandering the aisles of a toy-store—he doesn’t know why or how he ended up looking at the baseball equipment but while he is there he minus well try out a few bats. Bob displays the exact same level of ignorant arrogance in his actions.

The plot heaps onto this deeply underworked character (who, in all honesty, appears as lifelike as Mac’s speak and spell function) by running far ahead of the crawling pace which should be attempted. The plot begins with Bob being disciplined for supposedly stealing from the company he works for; however, at the last moment he is saved by a mysterious benefactor who not only saves his job but places him on a delegation to the grand opening of the moon city Langrenus. When there he encounters a desperate man at the end of his rope who prattles on about a vast conspiracy involving alien technology. Bob tries his best to help the man, but the man is murdered before anything is able to be done: before his death, though, the desperate man sends Bob a file detailing everything he knows. A key factoid is that Mars holds the key to everything.

So what does our brave Bob do? Ignore the message and return to his daily life? Inform the police and let the authorities investigate? Hire a mercenary to track down the murderer and enact justice? Nope! The correct answer is: ignore his family, job, laws, and inability to defend himself— he rushes off in a spaceship not of his own, all the way to Mars, so as to investigate the strange ramblings of a depressed cowboy. Good thing he did too because as it turns out there is an alien city on Mars settled by colonist dissidents from an intergalactic superpower called ‘The Realm’ which is not only building up its forces AND technology but also intends to launch a surprise attack on Earth so as to enslave humanity.

A huge swath of the writing at this point is terrible but before I sprinkle on more blame, I want to give credit when credit is due: Jeffrey, if it is to be said did anything correct in this messy manuscript (which to me painfully reads as a first draft), did succeed in making an intriguing Neo-Wild-West: the aliens on Mars are different, unique, and possessing enough “old school” and “new school” vibes to keep them at the center of the show. The customs, rituals, religions, lifestyles, evolutionary, social, and political values and structures which form the basis of the Martian society are—by far—the most interesting thing in the novel. This is no to say they are particularly informed by the author’s writing (because the explanations are sloppy) but that of everything written, the alien civilization is the most cogent literary facet expounded upon.

Unfortunately, that is the only thing done even partially right: to list the deficiencies, (1) the dialogue between characters is nonsensical; whether it be between aliens and humans, or children and adults, everyone reads like the same monotone personality; (2) explanation of technology is brushed aside, leaving the reader confused as to the capabilities of the protagonist at any given time and why certain events transpire as they do; (3) Small segments of the book read as though they are missing: characters discuss something, then something happens, then something new—seemingly unrelated to the first happening—happens. Part of this issue lies in the author’s rushed writing; (4) Aid comes to the protagonist at an unbelievable pace. Every step of his journey, from the moment he lands on Mars to the second he departs, sees him aided by friendly natives whom just so happen to support Earthly autonomy. The accomplishments made by the protagonist are then, understandably, absurd parodies of actual plot developments, something which even when it is referred to by the characters themselves, does not manage to touch upon the profundity of the problem; (5) Poor writing, grammar, and punctuation. Characters fail as characters and very little makes sense.

At the end of the day, the author needed to take far longer to write this installment. Although there is some socially progressive references, such as lamentations on the demise of labor unions and the right of entities both national and biological to self-determination, something which shows a level of class consciousness on the part of the author, thereby elevating—just a tad—the text itself (when we consider it in relation to the inspirational sources), I still cannot overlook the glaring issues associated with the bulk of this book. Jeffrey is writing a series and with the next three installments already out, it is clear that though she enjoys penning tales of adventure, she needs to take a breath, step back and spend more time brainstorming, editing, and revising. This project has potential but only if she spends more effort writing and less effort at churning out the literary equivalent of vitamin pills. As it presently stands. I cannot recommend this text to anyone; but hey, it is free on the Amazon Kindle store, so if you are either intensely bored and forgot that you can go to a library, or want to judge for yourself, the price for admission—ignoring the time investment—is positively low.

Mission: Flight to Mars

V.A Jeffrey

189 pages. Published by Epistle. $0.00 (Kindle)[1]. 2014

[1] Prices were taken from Amazon.com and were accurate at the time of writing.

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Noisy, Wild, and Extremely Troublesome

The Lectures in the Arts and Humanities Series, a forum for research and scholarship at the University of Maine at Farmington, kicks off this semester with a lecture by Professor Daniel Gunn, “Noisy, Wild, and Extremely Troublesome: Children in Jane Austen’s Novels.”

The lecture will take place Wednesday, October 28, at 11:45 in the Emery Arts Center Performance Space. Admission is free, and the event is open to the public.

“Noisy, Wild, and Extremely Troublesome: Children in Jane Austen’s Novels” is a discussion of the representation of children in the interstices of Jane Austen’s novels. Children are generally presented in a manner consistent with Austen’s moral thematics but may also serve as a site onto which sexual feeling and other repressed desires and impulses are displaced.

Daniel Gunn is Professor of English at UMF, where he has taught since 1980.  He has published scholarly essays on the history and theory of the novel in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Narrative, Studies in the Novel, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, James Joyce Quarterly, the Georgia Review, and other journals.

Taking a Midnight Swim: A Review of “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki” by Haruki Murakami

Colorless1

By Curtis Cole

International sensation Haruki Murakami is back with his latest book “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage”. After his magnum opus “1Q84”, a delightful science-fiction-fantasy concoction spanning three volumes, Murakami’s latest effort is a return to more humble origins; recalling the emotional turmoil of novels such as “After Dark” (2008) and “South of the Border, West of the Sun” (2000), Colorless is a return to the every day: self-esteem, love, and friendship. The ability to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships all weigh heavily on this work’s threads. A fabric whose very fiber exudes rich philosophical meditation.

It is a tale of existential crisis; in high Murakami fashion, Colorless begins with a poignant musing: suicide. The protagonist, Tsukuru Tazaki, is cast out of his group of friends during his sophomore year of university—perhaps giving new meaning to the term ‘Sophomore Slump’—and enters a deep depression. Losing great swaths of weight, drinking regularly, and faring poorly in school, Tazaki barely survives apostate status. Describing his struggle as though being “hurled into the night sea” (302)[1], without anyone knowing of his misfortune, the plot of Colorless is one in which anyone ‘on the outside looking in’ can appreciate.

For years, Tazaki attempts to bury his intense feelings of hurt. His group of high school friends was his whole world—a perfect, closed circle which gave him everything he needed. So when he was excluded, later discovered due to a false accusation, the novel’s threads give credence to existential philosopher Martin Heidegger’s preoccupation with what he calls chatter (Gerede[2]) as forming a Fallen discourse which acts as an obstruction to Dasein’s ability to interpret the world, since Tazaki can only muddle on through life, trying his best to cover up old wounds, while his Dasein, his human-ness, as Heidegger would conceptualize it, lives an inauthentic existence due to its inability to get ‘ahead-of-itself’ and begin to interpret the world around itself in order to decide what path to next peruse. With Tazaki’s emotional scars affecting a semi-permanent despondent mood, the following sixteen years afford Tazaki nothing but trouble with friendships and dating; something seems to be holding him back from truly being himself, of establishing what Heideggerians dub as ‘care’, that metaphysical condition in which Dasein ‘wonders what to do next’. Enter Sara, a romantic interest who convinces Tazaki to allow her to research and locate his old friends—restoring the role of discourse to its proper realm as talk (rede), enabling a new multiplicity of options for Tazaki to existentially consider—so that he will be able to confront his old compatriots and finally heal those wounds from so long ago, just maybe giving himself a shot at a normal relationship with another person: his emotional chains no longer obstructing his authenticity.

Without spoiling details of the novel, which would ruin most of the book, I can say that Colorless took me by surprise in more way than one. It seems to be Murakami’s most mature work yet; many of his fans recognize his works from his wry humor, the multitude of pop culture references, and musings of a deep nature which just so happen to utilize thinkers from Voltaire to Star Wars. For the majority of Colorless, however, humor and pop culture references are few and far between. Yes, there are some amusing inclusions late in the novel but for the majority the reader is left with a piece of literature on the borderline of “pure”, or “high”, literature.

Colorless refines Murakami’s style. One still reads meditations on sex, (in)authentic living, all while finding philosophy transcribed as conversation within the margins, but it has been reoriented toward a deeper cause than his previous, largely casual effort; the majority of the book reads as a conversation, switching off between an omniscient narrator and Tazaki’s own inner monologue. The existential dilemma of living according to the “they” takes center-stage and fuses with the profound emotional conceptualization of the protagonist’s efforts to set himself right and take account for his life. Done with Murakami’s usual poetically minimalist grace, these Pure literary aspects easily dislodge the so-called “low cultural” aspects, which show up only rarely (those self-referential moments concerning popular culture which Murakami is so known for), and convince the reader that Colorless is a work announcing to the world that this project was of a deep value to the author, and so foregone the mass marketed plots and sub-plots which make for easy dollar fodder.

Needless to say, there are no car chases.

At its core, Colorless is about self-discovery and healing. With a plethora of red herrings, (possibly) interrelated themes and motifs, and a few simple backstories to augment the primary thread, a student of literary criticism would have their fair share of topics to grapple with should they delve into untangling the nature of this text. Perhaps Colorless is a signal that Murakami will be shifting his writing style for future books, or maybe he just needed to tell a tale that had been echoing in his mind for some years. Either way, any fan of Murakami’s writings should not hesitate to pick up a copy and decide for themselves.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Haruki Murakami

384 Pages. Published by Random House. $10.88 (Kindle). 2014.

NOTES

[1] Page citations refer to the Kindle version of the novel.

[2] Words in parenthesis denote the original German.