February 26, 2014

The Martian

As soon as I heard about Andy Weir's THE MARTIAN sometime last fall, I started looking forward to the novel's release earlier this month. The premise is that during a NASA expedition to Mars, an astronaut is accidentally left behind and has to figure out how to survive alone. I'm slightly obsessed with Mars, and I love survival stories, so I couldn't wait. I was further excited to learn that Weir would be doing an event at a bookstore near me. It was great fun to hear him talk about the process of writing and researching the book, and once I had it in my hands, I spent the next few days devouring it. This is a thrilling, clever, terrifying, and fun adventure story, and I definitely recommend it.

As the book opens, disaster has already occurred: Mark Watney has just found himself alone on Mars after his crew was forced to abandon their mission early and leave the planet. The other astronauts had every reason to believe he was dead, and Mark is left without any method of communication, so he can't tell them or NASA that he's actually still alive. He's safe for the moment, with basic needs provided for, but his supplies and equipment were only designed for a monthlong mission. Mark explains all this in a series of log entries that he's recording for posterity, fully aware that he's unlikely to survive.

Mark turns out to be perhaps the best possible person to be stranded on Mars. He's optimistic, resourceful, and equipped with several skills that prove useful. Most of all, he's completely unwilling to give up, and so every time a new seemingly impossible obstacle arises, he keeps working until he comes up with a solution to get past it. He even manages to keep making jokes the whole time.

The most impressive thing about this book is that Weir had to come up with a long series of ways for Mark's situation to get worse that could still be recovered from with the materials available. The story is mostly details about problems and solutions, and that involves the presentation of a fair amount of science. For me, it was a bonus to get into the nitty-gritty of stuff like how a space suit functions, and I think even readers who find that idea less appealing will appreciate the clear explanations. Despite the time Mark spends calculating his oxygen and calorie needs, the story moves along at a fast pace.

The book does have some flaws. By Weir's own admission, the story isn't concerned with character development, and Mark's breezy narration doesn't always ring true considering how dire his situation is. However, since Mark is a character we have to spend a long time alone with, it's fair to prioritize making that a pleasant experience over striving for utter believability. What bothered me more is that I spotted some inconsistencies about the facts of the story. For example, different mentions of the length of the Mars voyage seemed to contradict each other. In a book that was otherwise concerned with scientific precision, it was frustrating to see these errors.

Ultimately, though, this is a book to be read for the page-turning quality of a harrowing survival tale, and in that department, it excels.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Laura Harrington from Beyond the Margins points out common dialogue mistakes and how to avoid them: "Married couples do not need to tell each other how old they are, how many children they have, or how long they've been married. When/if they do, the reader experiences this as false. People who know each other have a wonderful shorthand to their dialogue; they assume a great deal. This is very interesting for the reader because we get to try to read between the lines."


mamagotcha said...

Ooh, Clay just got that and has been raving about it! I'll have to swipe it from him. But I'm still reading Cmmdr. Hadfield's book that I gave Cord for Christmas... better get crackin'!

Lisa Eckstein said...

Chris Hadfield contributed one of the raves on the back of the book!

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