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Tag: kingterval

Kingterval: Into Thin Air

(12-19 September 2022)

Despite having ‘owned’ Into Thin Air on Kindle for several years, and despite the heavy acclaim surrounding it, it’s taken me until this year to get around to reading Jon Krakauer’s account of his fateful Everest expedition. What ultimately prompted this was a recent episode of Tim Harford’s very excellent Cautionary Tales podcast—not an episode about Everest, but rather a short series of episodes covering Scott’s infamously doomed expedition to the Antarctic. I came away from that fascinated by the extremes some people put themselves through and keen to read more. While I was unable to find a book about Scott and the Antarctic that sufficiently appealed to me I did eventually stumble across that copy of Into Thin Air waiting patiently in my library and thought ‘ah!’

Now, mountaineering and/or climbing is not something that’s ever appealed to me. Not even a teeny bit. I’m not a particularly physical person and I also have what may be either mild vertigo or a realistic fear of falling to my death from a great height. So, yes, climbing is generally off my hobby list. I can sort of understand how some people get satisfaction from pushing their limits and conquering the unconquerable, but the thing that genuinely surprised me while reading Into Thin Air is how absolutely fucking miserable it all sounds.

That said, the author does make it reasonably clear that climbing Everest is unlike most other climbing expeditions he’s embarked upon. There’s a long journey simply to get to the base of Everest (not base camp: just the bottom of the mountain). There are huge costs involved, starting with the visa you need to buy before you will be allowed climb the mountain. Then there’s the acclimatisation, which takes place over several weeks and, judging by its depiction in this book, is among the more gruelling and debilitating processes one can voluntarily put one’s body through. Finally, there’s the climb itself, which judging by this account seems like a constant gamble against time. Can you make it to the top before the weather turns on you? Can you make it back down again before your body grows too frozen and exhausted to move?

The origin of this book comes from a journalist (and experienced climber) being commissioned to climb Everest for a magazine article. The reason it ended up being a book at all is because of the events that took place on the mountain during that particularly brutal expedition. There is some element of retrospect, but this book mostly puts us in the midst of an unfolding tragedy and introduces us to many of the people that it will claim. The author outlines a lot of contributing factors (and doesn’t avoid pointing the finger at himself at times) but at the end of the day this is another strangely compelling story about humans challenging nature and losing.


While not an adaptation of this book, the 2015 movie Everest depicts the same events. I could probably do with watching it again as I recall it being a perfectly competent movie but maybe I’ll get more from it a second time around, having now read an alternative account.

Oddly enough, though, reading this book makes me want to rewatch a completely different and, admittedly, pretty terrible movie about mountaineering: Vertical Limit. It’s dumb and it’s good fun. I hate it and I love it.

One movie I did end up checking out in the wake of reading Into Thin Air was the documentary Free Solo, which follows Alex Honnold’s bid to climb the 3,000 feet vertical rock face of El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park, without the benefit of ropes or safety equipment of any kind.

As one of the reviewers on IMDB accurately states: “by far one of the best horror films I have ever seen.”

The Reading

Considering this was an impulse read, it was an agreeably swift and engaging one. Jon Krakuaer delivers some fine writing to help convey the experience and the narrative comes with the grim compulsion to keep turning the page and find out what terrible thing is going to happen next. If it’s your sort of thing, then it’s an easy recommendation.

Kingterval: Doctor Who novelisations

(July 2 – 12)

If you were a Doctor Who fan in the 1970s or 1980s there’s a near 100% chance you’ll be familiar with the Target novelisations that were, back in the dark ages, the only way for fans to revisit older Doctor Who adventures. As a major Who fan I used to collect and read these pocket sized books endlessly, and some of them remain imprinted on my memory even now. When one of the series’ most prolific authors, Terrance Dicks, died a while back it’s not for nothing that many people talked about the impact he had on children’s literacy back in the day.

Cut ahead to 2016: the newly revived TV series has been going strong for more than a decade already and BBC Books make the awesome decision to revive the old Target brand and reissue a select handful of seven of these original novels complete, in an essential step with the original artwork. Several more reissues followed over ensuing years and we eventually started to see novelisations of some new series stories, which was tremendously exciting.

I have a modest collection of about 80 of the original novels, so naturally I’ve been adding these new releases to my collection as they emerge. However, it wasn’t until recently that I thought maybe, perhaps, I could consider  reading some of these books that I keep buying. Radical idea, I know, but bear with me. To be honest it was more out of idle curiosity than a genuine commitment that I picked Dalek, by Robert Shearman, off the shelf. This one drew me on account of Robert Shearman being a writer that one of my good friends rates highly so it seemed a good place to start. 

Obviously I’d already seen the episode that the novelisation is based on, so I was pretty impressed to find that the first chapter bore absolutely no relation whatsoever to anything I had seen on screen and, adding further intrigue, it wasn’t immediately clear how it would eventually tie into the story. I needed to read more!

In keeping with the original Target novels, Dalek was an enjoyably swift read. However, unlike those old novelisations which often skewed very close to the televised story (sometimes to a fault) Shearman makes a few changes here and there and, perhaps most impressively, gives a detailed backstory to almost every speaking character in the story.

I enjoyed Dalek so much I decided to pick another one to read right away and went with Stephen Moffatt’s novelisation of his own 50th anniversary story Day Of The Doctor. This was a chunkier book than Dalek, but it’s one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I’ve had in years. Moffatt does some incredibly clever and funny things with his story and gives it a whole new lease of life in written form. I could write about this one for reams, but rather than do that I will urge you to read it if you have even the vaguest interest in Doctor Who. It’s like reading a Douglas Adams novel, but one with an actual plot.

For my final reading choice (because things always have to come in threes) I went with Russell T Davies’ novelisation of his triumphant first episode for New Who, Rose. Of all the books this one is closest to the original Target style, but still adds depth and backstory that you would rarely find in those old novelisations. Released 15 years after the episode first aired (15 years!! What even is time???) one of the most entertaining features about this book is how Russell T Davies manages to include all sorts of callbacks (call forwards?) to events and characters that would appear much, much later in the series. It’s a lovely way of tying this (re)introductory story into the glorious future that Davies would shepherd the revived series towards.

Adaptations …?

So this section is a bit backwards this time given that the books themselves are adaptations of the original TV episodes. However, in keeping with the house style I still feel obliged to include brief mentions of the televisual counterparts here.

Clearly Dalek was one of the more exciting debut episodes of the new series (new Doctor, new series, and the Daleks were back!). It’s a solid episode. I remember at the time thinking how strange it was hearing a Dalek that was more than a monosyllabic monster but, of course, it didn’t take long for them to fall back into their old ways.

Even more hyped was Day Of The Doctor. At the time I was a little underwhelmed; perhaps I was expecting more fan service. Over subsequent rewatches I’ve come away thinking it’s easily among the best episodes that New Who has delivered.

Finally, Rose. Could there possibly have ever been a more anticipated episode of Doctor Who. Rose, in my view, absolutely nailed it. It’s a vision of Doctor Who that never could have happened in the original run, but was absolutely what the show needed to bring it up to date and make it work for both new and old audiences. I have my gripes with some of Davies’ later episodes, but I will forever bring him credit for bringing Who back and making it work.

The Reading

Not a whole lot to add here. I read Dalek over two nights. Day Of The Doctor took a bit longer (perhaps four nights) but was one of those books I only reluctantly put down when sleep beckoned. Rose, I think, was a three-nighter.

And all were thoroughly enjoyable!

Kingterval: Andy Weir

(Sep 14 – Oct 18)

After spending more than two months wading through IT I decided it was time to take a short break from Stephen King. I’d actually decided right from the start that I would take a break after IT, but it makes it sound more dramatic if I paint things as though reading ITwas a glorious struggle that left me desperate for some literary recuperation. In either case, ITrepresents something of a transition point in the Stephen King bibliography (of which more in my next post) so it seemed a good moment at which to take a Kingterval. Yes, that pun is terrible and, yes, I am also very proud of it.

The Martian was one of my favourite books of [insert year that The Martian came out]. It was one of those rare and beautiful novels that I just couldn’t put down. I missed out on Weir’s second novel, Artemis, due to mixed reviews and general inertia, but when I started reading good things about his latest, Project Hail Mary, I decided I definitely wanted to check it out. And, since it made for a tidily themed trio, I decided why not read all three of Weir’s novels before getting my King happening again.

Project Hail Mary

Andy Weir - Project Hail Mary paperback cover

I acquired a very large paperback copy of this, which sat on my desk for a week or two before I finally finished IT. I don’t want to talk too much about the plot because there are some nice little twists here and there, but I can see why reviewers were comparing it to The Martian: it uses the same basic premise of sticking a person alone in a perilous situation who needs to science the shit out of his various predicaments.

This was a very easy and engaging read, and I highly recommend it. However, the writing did feel a bit thin in comparison to The Martian. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that our main character wakes up with amnesia—it gives us an easy engine to hook the narrative on, but it also means we can’t really get into the main character’s head to the same degree that we do with The Martian. However, because of this device, one of the things I did enjoy about this novel is how much it felt like playing a video game: you wake up not knowing anything, gradually you explore and expand your environment, learning the rules as you go. The longer you spend in this universe, the bigger it becomes. Literally. That said, I suspect that the slightly more fanciful plot is another reason why this one doesn’t feel as real as The Martian.

It’s perhaps not fair to keep comparing this to The Martian—it’s a great read regardless of whether you’ve read that earlier novel—but it has to be said that consciously trying to echo a successful formula will inevitably drive comparisons.

The Martian

Andy Weir - The Martian paperback cover

I read The Martian second, because sometimes I just have to do things out of order. And also because I didn’t have a copy of Artemis yet. This was my third read of The Martian and I was keen to see how a book I had enjoyed hugely on previous occasions added up. The good news is it still holds up (but you didn’t really need me to tell you that). 

Despite reading it twice, and having seen the movie a couple of times, I’d completely forgotten that there was a dual narrative going on: the predicament on Mars, and the efforts back on Earth to get their man home. One of the other major drivers of the book is the main character’s optimism and sense of humour; I’m sure this was a huge contributor to the novel’s success. This, unfortunately, is where Project Hail Mary suffers—it could almost be the same character in both novels (barring a few spoilerific characteristics that I won’t divulge here).


Andy Weir - Artemis paperback cover

I was a little wary of this one due to the mixed reviews. The thing that sold me was reading it described as “as heist movie set on the moon”. It’s not really that, it’s more a of pulp crime novel set on the moon, but it’s still a fun melding of genres. I went in hoping not to be disappointed and ended up having a really good time with it. The general set up is pretty different to Weir’s other two novels, but this is the one where Weir’s real strengths as a novelist become clear. 

You see, Weir follows one of the first rules of crafting a compelling narrative, and he does it really well: he throws problems at his characters and he does it constantly. No sooner have they resolved one crisis than another one appears over the horizon. And the other thing Weir does, which is more or less his Unique Selling Point, is that his characters always solve their problems with science. As such you get entertaining high-stakes drama and science lessons in one easy to read package.

I can’t guarantee that you’ll enjoy Artemis if you enjoyed The Martian, but it’s got a lot of the same elements: a funny, resourceful main character and plenty of twists and turns that bring fresh peril. It’s also a different read: our lead character is female, and has an engagingly cynical streak; also the premise revolves rather less around people being heroes, and more around people trying to make a few bucks, or simply to survive.

This one probably doesn’t deserve to get lost under the shadow of The Martian.

The Adaptations

At this point there’s only one adaptation of Andy Weir’s novels: the 2015 movie of The Martian. There is talk of Ryan Gosling producing and starring in a movie of Project Hail Mary (and, I tell you, I would love to see this one visualised) and some presumably stalled attempts to do something with Artemis (an HBO type series would do the job very nicely here I reckon). But let’s talk about Ridley Scott’s version of The Martian.

First and foremost, it’s a very good film. It’s a classic sci-fi drama that sits very nicely alongside the sort of hard science fiction films they used to do before Star Wars came along. But it also loses a fair bit of the novel’s charm. Matt Damon carries the movie faultlessly, but he’s not the character we grew to love from the novel. Ridley Scott, not a director known for delivering the funnies, really scales down the humour which is a shame because, with a script written by Drew Goddard, this should shine with wit.

Outside of those minor criticisms, the film is remarkably faithful to the novel which probably goes to show how tightly crafted the narrative was in the first place. If it ain’t broke, well … Weir will probably break it anyway just to find a fun way of fixing it again.

The Reading

All told it took me about a month to read these three novels, which is pretty good going for me. Two of those weeks were spent with Project Hail Mary, which was a consistently enjoyable read. I then started gangbusters on The Martian and then slowed down, probably because I pretty much knew what was going to happen. As such it worked out quite well that I left Artemis to last, since it gave me something fresh to read before getting back into my King reread.

As I said above, these are very easy books to read—and that’s not meant to be an insult, they’re simply very engaging and Weir does an excellent job of keeping things moving along while doing his science thing along the way.

Up next: time to meet King’s number one fan …

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