Long Before Luther [A Review]

34525486“Was the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone an invention or a recovery?” Though Protestants might easily dismiss that question, it would be foolish to do so. The Roman Church asserts that this doctrine that is so central to Protestants is an innovation, and that we have thus been living in error for the past 500 years and need to return to the straight and narrow path found only in Mother Church.

It does not help, of course, that Protestants (and especially evangelicals) can sometimes act as if the modern Church just sort of appeared out of thin air without caring one bit where it came from. Slightly better (but only slightly!) is the belief that the true Church only arose 500 years ago when Luther posted his theses. This is not, however, how any of it works: we came from somewhere, and in one way or another we must reckon with our history.

In a peculiar and ironic way, this narrative of Church History is one that the 16th century Reformers like Luther and Calvin and Zwingli would themselves reject. While they did believe that there was corruption and theological infidelity and corporate sin in the Church that needed to be repented of, this was not a task of reinventing the Church or starting a new Church; their aim was to come back to the historical teaching of the Church. As Fred Sanders has recently put it, they intended to be more catholic than the Roman Church would allow them to be.

It is thus with great pleasure that I learned about Nathan Busenitz’s new book, Long Before Luther: Tracing the Heart of the Gospel From Christ to the Reformation. There have been hundreds of books published this year in honor of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s theses, but this one stood out to me precisely because it works so powerfully to confront this false notion that the true Church was dormant or dead until the 16th century.


Busenitz focuses in specifically on the doctrine of justification by grace through faith with the intention of refuting the Roman Church’s claim that it was an innovative doctrine, having no historical precedent. He begins by looking at the scriptural warrant for the doctrine and then proceeds to examine the doctrine in theologians before Augustine, in Augustine himself, and then in later medieval theologians such as Anselm and Bernard of Clairvaux.

Throughout the whole book Busenitz stays rooted in primary sources, only leaning upon secondary sources to supplement his interpretation or to interact with others who read the sources differently than he does. Given that Busenitz holds a doctorate in church history and patristic theology, the section on the pre-augustinian Church and on Augustine himself are much stronger than the last section on the post-augustinian Church. That’s not particularly a bad thing, but it’s worth noting because there is certainly far more that could have been said about the medieval period than is spoken of here.

Areas of Improvement

Let me reiterate that I am so deeply thankful that this book has been published; Protestants could stand to have a lot more books like this on our shelves. That being said, I see two primary areas where this book could have been considerably strengthened: its doctrinal focus and its engagement with detractors and critics.

Doctrinal focus. In one sense, one has to commend Busenitz for his laser focus on a single doctrine for an entire book-length project; it would be easy to go a mile wide and an inch deep, and because he doesn’t do that he is able to interact extensively with primary sources. That’s pretty rare in popular-level evangelical books, and it’s wonderful that he does so.

Nonetheless, justification by grace through faith is not an adequate summary of everything the Reformers were trying to accomplish, and focusing only on this one doctrine exposes Protestants to the criticism that we only care about getting people saved without investing much thought into the life and function of the Church, and how individuals fit into the whole. Yet for Luther, Cranmer, Calvin, and the rest, the doctrine of soteriology was only part of the project of reformation.

In the medieval point of view, what distinguished the true Church was apostolic descent (can we trace a spiritual genealogy all the way back to the NT?) whereas for the Reformers the true Church was marked by the right preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments, and, for the Reformed at least, the right exercise of Church discipline. Right preaching of the Word came from the ad fontes impulse to dig back down to the primary sources rather than relying on millennia of interpretations instead. They weren’t abandoning Church history, but they were returning it to its proper place. Long Before Luther expressly does not intend to tackle all of that, but I cannot help but feel the book is a bit lopsided as a result.

Engagement with detractors and critics. Having only relatively recently begun to dig into patristics and reformation theology myself, I am in no way qualified to make judgments about whether Busenitz interprets the sources fairly or not. I imagine that most readers of this book will be in the same boat, and for the most part we are required to simply trust that he is not just lifting quotes out of context and using them as proof texts. That’s a scary place to be as a reader, and I imagine his case would have been rhetorically strengthened had he engaged opposing viewpoints more thoroughly.

To be fair, he does do some of this: on p. 25 he uses Alister McGrath’s contention that sola fide is an innovative doctrine as a springboard to get into his argument. In the section on Augustine he gives ample time to the argument that Augustine believed in sola caritate iustificare (“justification by love alone”) rather than by grace through faith alone. Given that the entire book is a defense against the accusation of theological innovation, though, I would have hoped to see this sort of interaction throughout more of his argumentation. This would have also increased the size of the book, but it would have been worth it.


It’s a rather short book weighing in at just over 160 pages minus notes and appendices, and seems to be targeted at the armchair theologian; it’s not as technical as historical theology can get, but I could imagine it going over the heads of some readers who have never read much in this vein before. My criticisms aside, I really do appreciate this book and Busenitz’s zeal to see a Protestant Church more connected to and grounded in its own history.

You can pick up a copy on Kindle for about $9, or you can purchase it from the publisher for roughly the same price.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.


Humble Roots [A review]

There have been (at least) two trends in my life over the past few years: first, I have grown rather weary of the endless parade of devotional books marching forth from evangelical printing presses, and second I have felt more and more of a desire to be out in my garden planting seeds, pulling weeds, watering, and planning. I tire of devotional literature not for any lack of good intention on the part of the publishing houses, but because so much of it seems to simply trot out the same clichés and formulas as the last 100 books. This has, in turn, led to my reading of far fewer books per year than in the past and thus spending more time out in the garden. To be fair, not all of the blame rests on the publishers; I tend to read books more quickly than they deserve, and my perception of their value might have been higher if I had read them more slowly.

513mja5ds-l-_sy344_bo1204203200_I still keep tabs on new books, however, and when I saw the publisher’s description of Hannah Anderson’s Humble Roots, my interest was piqued to a degree that my cynicism could not repress. The premise is simple: growing fruits and vegetables and tending the land are activities that teach us much about what it means to be humble. In eleven chapters, Anderson walks through her experiences living in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, cultivating the ground with her husband.

Chapter 7, “Vine Ripened,” is in my opinion the most excellent chapter of the book. The luscious-looking plump, red tomatoes in the store are not actually ripe but merely gassed to appear as if they are. Those tomato varieties are not cultivated for flavor but merely for their looks and for their ability to withstand long treks across the country in semis. In the same way, many of us approach life and maturity this way; the virtues we admire in others tend to be whether they are attractive or whether they say things we agree with. If someone knows the “right” people or espouses the right ideas, then we think of them as mature or worthy of our admiration. Anderson challenges this notion and suggests that perhaps the reason we see so many failures of character in the church (and even in the wider world) is because we prize superficial maturity rather than something deeper.

Horticulture is the thread tying the whole book together; this is largely a strength, but sometimes teeters on the edge of becoming cheesy. What saves the book from going there is the fact that Anderson is actually conversant in the language of the garden, and is not simply rummaging for illustrations out of a book or off the internet. She knows what she’s talking about, whether the subject is character or apple trees.

I must say that all in all, this is one of the better books I have read this year. The vine ripened tomato analogy I shared above is something I have been ruminating on for weeks and will likely stick in my consciousness for years to come. You can pick up a copy on Amazon for $7.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

Punderdome [A Review]

I consider myself something of a connoisseur of puns. A pundit, you might say. A pun at its essence is simply a play on words, but a good pun exhibits draws an intersection between two otherwise unrelated conceptual fields in one word or phrase. A pun will always draw forth a groan, but a good pun also draws forth begrudging appreciation for the punster’s rhetorical cunning.61ve2bo1hojl

All of the above is a fancy way to say, “I like puns and I actually spend time thinking about them.” So when I happened to see a new card game come out last month called Punderdome, I was sold… even though I received my copy for free from Crown Publishers. Thanks! I decided to try it out with my wife and one of our friends, two people who both love and hate puns more than most.

The game is quite simple: someone draws two cards at the same time. Each card has a word or phrase on it, and then everyone else has 90 seconds to write down a pun that integrates the two cards. That’s the big idea of the game—I told you it was simple. It might not sound very difficult, but I found it to be rather difficult (and I tend to find puns to come fairly naturally). At the end of the 90 seconds the prompter decides which pun is the best, and that winner gets the two cards. Whoever gains the most cards wins.

A quirky aspect of the game is that whoever brings the game out and wants to play it is the first prompter, and (as a sort of apology for the groans that will ensue) he or she has to fill two mystery envelopes each with a prize. At the end of the game, the winner gets to pick one envelope as their prize. Of course, there might be a good prize in only one of the envelopes, so it’s a bit of a gamble.

The game is pretty fun, but I imagine it would be most fun with a large group of people. The only critique is that some of the combinations of cards can be fairly difficult, which decreases the fun when everybody fails to come up with anything. It’s a great game in general though, and I love how simple it is.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this game from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

The River Cottage Booze Handbook [a review]

From rose hip vodka to green walnut grappa, from elder flower and gooseberry wine to blackberry cider, from puffed wheat beer to dandelion and burdock beer, it is clear that alcohol is really something of an art form for Wright. These brews are intended to stand out from the crowded shelf of normalcy.

Just about anything in this world can be transformed into a delicious alcoholic beverage, if you know what you’re doing. That is precisely the message of John Wright’s new River Cottage Booze Handbook. As the title perhaps implies, the booze culture of Wright’s world is more akin to Hobbits in hobbit-holes or Redwallian friar mice in forest abbeys. His passion is for the forageable fruits, nuts, berries, leaves, and roots you can pick for yourself in the wild, and the delightful concoctions you can then make from them for next to nothing.

The book is a series of recipes for the most unusual and delightful drinks, divided up into four categories: infusions, wine, cider, and beer. From rose hip vodka to green walnut grappa, from elder flower and gooseberry wine to blackberry cider, from puffed wheat beer to dandelion and burdock beer, it is clear that alcohol is really something of an art form for Wright. These brews are intended to stand out from the crowded shelf of normalcy.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding, and the true test here is whether these recipes are truly drinkable. Since the mint patch in my backyard is in season right now, I decided to follow Wright’s recipe for Watermint Vodka (67). My variety is actually chocolate mint, but the infusion was simple to make and turned out quite well within just a couple hours. (I decided to get a little crazy, however, and add some lemon thyme leaves after a few hours. I wouldn’t recommend it–the resulting flavor was close to cough syrup.)

One of my favorite parts of the book is Wright’s discussion on each recipe. Sometimes he offers tips on where to find various ingredients and how to identify them in the wild, or what sort of cocktails you might make, or how to maintain the correct specific gravity when adding high water content ingredients. All the while he maintains a wonderfully dry sense of humor.

The one downside to the Booze Handbook is that Wright is English, and the book is really aimed at the UK. Though the edition I am reviewing here is the US edition, there are plenty of terms that Wright uses that are unfamiliar to me as an American reader. This gets most problematic when certain ingredients don’t even grow (natively) in the US, such as Alexanders. One might expect that in a US edition of a book like this, substitutions would have been made.

Notwithstanding, this book is a pleasing collection of recipes, many of which I intend to try soon. The hardcover edition is gorgeous, with innumerable high quality photographs, thick paper, and a rugged binding. I would recommend it if you enjoy crafting your own beverages from raw ingredients and you’re comfortable with the necessity of figuring out substitutions for UK-native ingredients.

You can pick up a copy on Amazon for $16.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

Make Some Beer [A Review]

“Craft beer is like wine these days,” my brother offhandedly remarked to me “It’s crazy how many options there are.”

I grew up on the front range of Colorado, which is basically micro brew mecca. It’s weird if your town doesn’t have a brewery. Call me spoiled, but I never have a good reason to drink Bud or Heineken or Corona when I multiple excellent breweries within minutes of my home.

Make Some Beer

Beer means many different things to many different people; to some, it’s a picture of laziness and indolence. To others, it’s the specter that haunts homes and destroys families. I want to acknowledge that these images are based in sad reality, but for me it’s never carried that connotation. I grew up in a home and a community that was very moderate for the most part. After all, if you’re going to buy craft beer, you’re drinking for pleasure and taste rather than to just get smashed.

When I turned 21 and began to learn about the intricacies of beer, I became utterly fascinated. At first it was fun to just try new beers, but as time passed I became interested in homebrewing. My dad brewed occasionally when I was growing up and my roommate at the end of college brewed all the time, sometimes successfully and sometimes less so. (His pumpkin ale was incredible, while his espresso stout with juniper was… less incredible.) 

When I graduated from college and moved out of that house, two of my roommates and I decided to pool our returned security deposit money and invest in a brew kettle, some buckets, hoses, air locks, and the whole nine yards. We started with a simple amber ale kit which turned out okay, and then a few months later we tried making a brown ale. Also just okay. But with a few home brews under my belt now, I wanted to venture into more interesting beers but didn’t know where to start.

About a month and a half ago, I saw Make Some Beer: Small-Batch Recipes From Brooklyn to Bamberg by Erica Shea and Stephen Valand online, and it’s basically a beer cook book. Shea and Valand are the founders of Brooklyn BrewShop, a supplier for hobbyist brewers in NYC. They specialize in small-batch beers, meaning 1-gallon quantities rather than the usual 5-gallon. You might ask yourself, “That hardly seems worth it! Isn’t that a lot of effort for a microscopic amount of beer?” I admit that I was surprised at first, but there are (at least) four advantages to such a small-batch approach:

  1. You can brew it on your stove with normal kitchen implements
  2. You can test out a recipe to see if you like it before brewing a gazillion bottles of it
  3. It’s a comparatively small investment
  4. It’s a smaller amount of malt, and thus a little bit more manageable

Certainly the disadvantage is the economy of scale, because you put in almost the same amount of effort as you would for five gallons, but you get significantly less output. The other challenge is that most brew shops sell hops and yeast prepackaged for 5-gal recipes, so you’ll have to do a little more measuring. I would definitely still recommend trying it out, though.

I convinced my brother to try a couple recipes with me, so we brewed a Bruxelles Blonde and a Farmhouse Ale in the same day. The recipes are clear and easy to follow, and if you want to scale up to a 5-gal batch they offer adjustments at the end of each recipe. They were done fermenting two weeks ago, so we bottled them up. They obviously hadn’t carbed up yet, but I was flat-out impressed with how well the flavors turned out. We didn’t have a good way to measure out the hops and yeast very precisely, so I was worried that the beers would taste really screwy. The Blonde tasted perfect, but we must have added a little too much hops to the Farmhouse. When we popped them open this weekend for Labor Day, they had carbed up pretty well. We probably could have been a little more generous with the sugar, but it wasn’t bad. The farmhouse ale still tasted a bit off, but we’re going to let the rest of the bottles sit for a while longer and see if that helps.

Though the proof of a book like this is in how good the beer is, I also wanted to offer a few comments about the book itself (and not just the beer I made from it).

The actual review part of this review

The recipes are dead easy to follow, even for a guy like me who’s relatively new to the homebrew scene. If you’ve ever cracked open a cook book, this will be what you might expect. The book is divided up into the four seasons, and for each season they provide a generous helping of appropriate beers from breweries all over the country and the world ranging from common (the Bruxelles Blond we tried is just your average Belgian) to crazy (a Bacon Dubbel from Pisgah Brewing or a hop-less Dandelion Gruit from Upright Brewing). 

Another neat feature of the book is a selection of (food) recipes at the end of each seasonal section that complement a certain beer or use the spent grain somehow (I plan on trying out their spent grain no-rise pizza dough). I found to be especially helpful a spent grain primer (p. 56) that explains how to use the spent grain while it’s still wet, how to dry it out, mill it, freeze it, or compost it. 

If you need it, they offer a quick refresher on how to brew beer at the beginning (p. 12) as well as a list of brewing equipment and ingredients. If you’ve never brewed beer before, you’ll probably want to find something additional to learn more about the process. They also have an excellent reference guide to common hops that shows where they are from, their relative bitterness, and tasting notes. It’s a great tool if you want to start branching out and creating your own recipes.

I only have a couple quibbles, and they are relatively minor. First, it’s bound as a paperback which is a frustrating choice for a cookbook–it doesn’t stay flat when you lay it on the table. When your hands are covered with sticky malts, you don’t want to be worrying about opening up to the right page. Though it would cost more, a hardcover or spiral-bound edition would be more helpful. 

Second, the table of contents is less than helpful. It gives page numbers for each season, but not for each individual beer. It’s not the end of the world, and you can flip around and find the page quickly enough, but it’s just not very helpful as far as tables of contents go. Plus, the spent grain primer isn’t even listed at all!


At the end of the day, Make Some Beer is a really helpful beer cookbook for the amateur home brewer who wants to try out some interesting new beers. I wouldn’t recommend it to the complete novice, but if you’re fairly familiar with the brewing process then it should prove to be an excellent resource for you. Brewers more experienced than I would probably find it less helpful except to get some new ideas.

You can find Make Some Beer on Amazon for $15.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.

Kindling a Revolution in Reading

We bookish types are straddling two very disparate worlds right now. The old world is that of the wonderful used bookstore crammed with too many floor-to-ceiling bookshelves which are in turn crammed with too many used books, each ripe enough to give off that certain scent of a well-loved book. It’s a world that carries a certain comfortable nostalgia for me, like a grilled cheese and tomato soup on a rainy day. It’s also a world that has been massively overturned by the meteoric impact of a new world: digital reading.

Kindle and Book
Two worlds collide.

Kindles, Nooks, Kobos, and all the other knock-offs each come to the ring with none of the nostalgia but with legions of features that make them far more appealing than a traditional book, such as the ability to carry not only a book but an entire library wherever you go. I am personally torn, as perhaps you are, between the joy of reading a hard copy of a book and enjoying the conveniences of the Kindle. I wanted to reflect here on what I’ve found to be valuable about the Kindle ecosystem and then offer a few suggestions on how it could improve.

What I Enjoy About My Kindle

Overall, I have been duly satisfied with the device over the past year. It’s a great form factor, and (in my opinion) has a more pleasing design than its competitors. Tight integration with Amazon means I can purchase just about any book I need (for cheap!) and be reading it in seconds. The refresh rate is speedy, so turning pages no longer suffers from former lag that would derail my train of thought. The Paperwhite lives up to its name with internal illumination that can get incredibly bright. 

Though many people are opting for tablets for their multi-functionality, I was interested in e-ink devices for two reasons: 1) I don’t want to be able to do anything other than read with my device (I’m easily distracted as it is), and 2) I want to avoid the eye strain of reading for long periods of time on a backlit device. Though e-ink displays feel clunky and dated compared to the current level of fluidity on something like a tablet, it was a cost I was interested in paying.

Amazon obviously wants you to be purchasing books through their massive online store, but it’s also possible to download books from third-party retailers and email them to your Kindle, where they are also stored in your own personal document cloud. You can also check out ebook versions of library books via overdrive.com, which stay on your device for the length of the checkout period and then delete themselves.

I can read an ebook as fast or even faster than a traditional book, given the ability to customize and fine-tune typography to my own personal needs. One of my favorite features of Amazon’s Kindle ecosystem is cloud syncing, so that I can start a book on my Kindle and then pick up where I left off automatically on my phone while waiting in a line or on my computer when I don’t have my Kindle with me. Highlights and notes sync as well, which comes in handy when I’m reading for school.

What I Wish Were Different About My Kindle

Though my experience has been largely positive, the technology still has plenty of room to mature. Here are a few things I hope to see in future iterations of digital reading:

Better desktop apps.

The software for the Paperwhite and the iPhone app receive fairly regular updates and are quite commendable, but it’s a different story with the Windows 8 app and the web app (I have not tried their apps for Android or Mac). One of the biggest selling points for the Kindle is the universality of your library: you can read it on pretty much any wifi-capable device you might own. The idea is great on paper, but the implementation is bare-bones at best and frustratingly confusing at worst. Neither the web app or the Windows app support collections, which makes sorting your eBooks rather pointless if they appear as just a big heap in some of the apps. The current situation would perhaps be somewhat more permissible if desktop filtering options were as robust as those on mobile and Paperwhite, but they aren’t. The most filtering you can do is between “Cloud” and “Downloaded,” but you’re out of luck if you’d like to see only Docs or Periodicals. There are other negative observations I could make, but instead I’ll turn to making positive contributions to what desktop apps could mean within the Kindle ecosystem.

My dream for desktop Kindle apps goes beyond the mere ability to present your purchased content on a different device. What if Amazon leveraged the strengths of a desktop computer (namely, its large screen, physical keyboard, and mouse) to make a Kindle app specifically designed for research and analysis? I obviously have academic works in mind more than your average pleasure reading, but it would be immeasurably helpful to be able to quickly sort through all my highlights, notes, and bookmarks and export them to various bibliographic formats. Further, what if Amazon souped up its search algorithm so that it not only did the job of returning results, but did it excellently? As Google knows well, a user isn’t usually looking for every occurrence of a phrase, but rather a specific instance of that phrase. Smart search lists results not necessarily in chronological order, but instead ranks them by relevance. When I am writing research papers, I am sorting through hundreds upon hundreds of quotes. I would like a search function that helps me find what I’m looking for faster, rather than just providing a rough index of word occurrences. It is possible to use Kindle eBooks for academic reading, but the system clearly is not designed to make it easy. Better desktop apps for Kindle would mean a positive contribution to the world of reading that would progress beyond the limits of physical books.

Better typography, consistency, and polish. 

Another frustration with the Kindle ecosystem is its lack of standardization or consistency. One cannot expect the interface elements to be in the same place across different apps: the back button on the Paperwhite is in the top navigation bar, whereas on every other app it is in the lower left-hand corner. Syncing on the Paperwhite is in the drop-down menu; on the iPhone it is in the sidecar menu; on the web app it is in the top bar. When it comes to searching, on the Paperwhite it is in the top menu on the right side. on the iPhone it is in the sidecar menu; on the web app it is in the top menu on the left side. In the Windows 8 app it is in the Windows sidecar navigation panel on the right side of the screen. Some of this is due to operating system-specific design standards, but this alone does not account for all the inconsistency. 

As mentioned above, filtering is simply not available on Windows 8 or the web app. On the iPhone I can filter down to Books, Newsstand, Docs. and Collections. On the Paperwhite I can filter down to Books, Periodicals, Docs, Collections, and Active Content. The lack of standard vocabulary is, simply put, confusing. 

One of the neat features on the Paperwhite and iPhone is their time-to-read feature at the bottom of the screen (it tells you how long it will take you to finish the chapter or the book). This, unfortunately, is absent from the Windows 8 app and the web app. 

Further, there is a lack of standardization across different Kindle eBooks: some have page numbers correlating to physical editions, while some only have digital location numbers. Most books allow you to fine-tune typographic settings to fit your personal needs, but some books puzzlingly do not. The Paperwhite has another handy feature in its “Go To” menu that allows fast access to the table of contents, but this also is not available for every title (even though those titles it is not available for do in fact have tables of contents). I’m sure there’s an understandable technical reason for this inconsistency, but it’s another example of a lack of polish. 

Table of Contents
A lack of standard feature sets between different books in the same digital eBook ecosystem is confusing and irritating. On the left is a book that doesn’t allow access to its table of contents in the “Go To” menu, while on the right is what many books offer.

I risk sounding whiny and petulant with complaints about polish, but for me it significantly impacts the reading experience. If Amazon wants a monopoly on the eBook market, the least they can do is provide top notch apps for users to access their purchased content.

Real-time Syncing. 

As I said above, syncing works fairly well, but if you need to switch from one device to another immediately, you usually can’t. It takes a minute to sync reading locations, and notes and highlights take even longer. Greater seamlessness here would make for a much smoother reading experience.

Disabling Automatic Screen Turn-off.

The Paperwhite automatically turns its screen off after a few minutes of inactivity, which is usually a good thing. It’s frustrating, however, when you’re trying to reference a certain text while writing a paper and the device keeps putting itself to sleep. I haven’t found any way to turn this feature off, which is irritating.


All in all, I have found my Kindle Paperwhite, and the Kindle Ecosystem in general, to be convenient and useful. That being said, it still has a ways to go. I understand that Amazon’s primary aim is to make money by selling books and that their Kindle devices and software are only means to that end, but I hope they understand that they could only gain happier customers who thus spend more money by making the reading experience more smooth, beautiful, and useful. A greater attention to the little details would, in my opinion, be a much more rewarding update than some fancy new (yet half baked) feature such as X-Ray or Goodreads integration. 

The Martian [A Review]

"You are the only human being on Mars." A review of The Martian, a new novel by Andy Weir.

You are one of six crewmembers on one of the very first manned missions to Mars in history. Things are going according to plan until a terrible storm hits and you have to abort. As the crew scrambles through the whipping winds to get back aboard the shuttle a chunk of debris, carried by the wind, knocks you away and the crew has to leave without you. You awake slowly, fading from blackness to a profound silence–the storm has gone onward, as has your crew. You are the only human being on Mars.

The Martian

If that sounds like the plot of a sci-fi thriller, it’s because that’s precisely what it is. The Martian by Andy Weir (Crown Publishers) is a page-turner of classic nerd fodder: if you love desperately narrow escapes from hopeless situations combined with near-future tech and a generous helping of scientific asides that only the geeky STEM student could appreciate, then this is the book for you.

Weir crafts the narrative mainly as a set of journal entries, such that you as the reader enter into the story through day-by-day past tense vignettes. It’s an interesting angle, because it feels so immediate and yet also reflective. You really get an opportunity to enter into the head of Mark Watney (the main character).

Given the recent flurry of interest in manned missions to Mars, this novel is a fascinating–and sobering–look at an area of space exploration that is slowly inching further away from fi toward sci. If we actually succeed in putting a human being on the face of Mars in only one decade from now, as is the plan, then this novel takes on a disturbing sense of potentiality.

Weir works hard to make his prose sound very normal, which contributes to how raw and gritty it feels. He uses profanity extensively toward this end, but rather than making it feel more real, it diminishes the quality of the writing in my opinion. He uses profanity so frequently that at times I felt like I was reading a cheap checkout stand novel. I’m no Victorian prude living in a cave of ages past; I am more than familiar with the place of profanity in our postmodern pop culture, but I nevertheless believe that profanity doesn’t make us sound cooler as much as it makes us sound pathetic.

Though I believe it would have been a higher-quality novel if he had used his profanity with greater purpose and lesser frequency, this is a small quibble in the final analysis. Weir writes with a sort of nerdy focus on detail that I really appreciated, and for his first published novel I am duly impressed. Apparently Hollywood is, too.

You can purchase a copy on Amazon (paperback $12/kindle $5).

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.