Sunday, February 14, 2016

Andy Weir's The Martian (The Book)

I've always loved tales of being marooned. Being marooned in space just makes them better. In fact, the very first review (and second post as the first one was a "Welcome to My Blog" post) was of Ryk Spoor's Castaway Planet. So when I heard about Andy Weir's work The Martian I knew I had to check it out. Unfortunately, I was running a book review blog and I was busy trying to keep up with submissions (and I only have one left. Details about how to submit are in the top right corner of the page) so I couldn't get to it right away. I wish I had because this thing rocks.

I have a dirty secret to admit to: I was a bit worried about this one. I had heard all of the praise of the book for its scientific accuracy and I was afraid that it was going to turn into more of a scientific tract than a novel. Seriously. I know nerds. I _AM_ a nerd. I was really afraid that I was going to end up bored to tears reading detailed instructions about how to grow things and find water on Mars. I mean, I'm a nerd but I'm a history nerd. Seriously, buy me a drink sometime and I'll tell you all about why The Patriot and The Last Samurai may be entertaining but they SUCK from a history perspective. Whatever you do though, don't let me tell the story about the guy I know who thought that Apocalypse Now was based on a true story. Fortunately, I refused to take council of my fears and I read it anyway. This is a good thing because this is a book that absolutely refuses to get bogged down in details to the detriment of story.

What else works is that although the science is there, it's not dreary. (Warning: There are some spoilers for the rest of this paragraph. Some of you may want to skip it.) It's just somewhat simplified and not expounded on to the point of insanity. Seriously. There are some orbital calculations made, but we're not expected to sit through them. It's just stated that they've been done and some basics given. We know that the ship will use some gravity to do thus and so but we're not expected to do the Calculus ourselves. The steps necessary to grow food on Mars are gone through in less than excruciating detail, except for the fact that I couldn't keep myself from picturing the smell anyway, and it just seems so real. We're talking about something that doesn't just sound plausible, it sounds possible. 

I'm a total fan of Space Opera with its FTL travel and space battles but The Martian gives us something that classic Space Opera doesn't: A feeling that this could happen in our lifetimes. A feeling of "Wow, I see what he did there." Don't get me wrong. I know the feeling of the hyperdrive not kicking in on a ship that has done the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs. I cringe when the dilythium crystals crack. This isn't that though. This is "Wow. That method would work now. I can see how you could do that now that you've explained it. I just don't know how you'd deal with the smell. 

I need to get a hard copy of The Martian (I read it on my Nook) so that I can hit people with it when they say that Hard Science Fiction is boring or that the characters are cardboard. Weir not only got his science right he made his characters into people. This guy has a gift. I actually cared whether Mark would make it out alive or not. I found myself rooting for him. I got a chuckle out of some of the things he did and other times I agonized with him. At least once I remember being taken back to a project on my car and how well it DIDN'T go. I got a chuckle out of that one and it happened because of the realism of a situation in the book.

The other members of the crew are well drawn too and so is the team at NASA. The boss is a bit of an over-officious prick but who hasn't had a boss like that at some point? At the same time, he acts like a prick because he is worried about all of the astronauts and not just the one that is stranded. It's totally understandable even while it's infuriating.

The odd part about castaway stories for me is that I like them. One of my favorite things to see in any story is a good villain. Whether it's Queen Takhisis and her followers in The Dragonlance Chronicles or Khan Noonian Singh in Star Trek it's always good to have someone to root against as well as someone to root for. In this type of a novel, nature has to stand in for the villain and it works here. Mars is an evil bastard every step of the way. From lack of an atmosphere to the opening dust storm to lack of water it stands in Mark's way every time he tries to accomplish something. I know the malevolence isn't intentional. Mars may be named after the god of war but it's not actually sentient. That much having been said, it feels malevolent to Mark and therefore to us.

In his afterword Weir mentioned that he wanted all of the problems experience by his characters would be predicated by their own decisions. Having read the book I can see what he's talking about. There is a dust storm at the beginning of the book that results in Mark being stranded. He can't do anything about that. After that though, everything happens according to this one principle. Nothing happens without cause. Weir repeatedly introduces problems to the plot but they all make sense. There are no Hand of God moments. Things happen in a logical manner without being predictable.

The one problem I had with the book is that it needs an epilogue. I wanted to know what happened after the end of the story. I'm not talking about anything Tolkien-esque, just a few pages to let us now what happened at the completion of the mission. I get this feeling a lot at the end of novels about people who have been marooned. The only time I've seen it done is in Castaway with Tom Hanks. But maybe that's just me. What was there was awesome.

Bottom Line: 4.5 out of 5 stranded probes

The Martian
Andy Weir
Crown Publishers, 2014

The Martian is available for purchase here:

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