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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review: The Martian

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="313"]The Martian by Andy Weir The Martian by Andy Weir[/caption]

The summary from Goodreads.com,

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he's sure he'll be the first man to die there.

It started with the dust storm that holed his suit and nearly killed him, and that forced his crew to leave him behind, sure he was already dead. Now he's stranded millions of miles from the nearest human being, with no way to even signal Earth that he's alive--and even if he could get word out, his food would be gone years before a rescue mission could arrive. Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to get him first.

But Mark isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills--and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit--he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?


If you read nothing else this year, you MUST read The Martian by Andy Weir. If you think of yourself as a hard-core science fiction fan, where the key word is science, this book will satisfy every geeky bone in your body. If you walked out of the movie Interstellar wondering where the real science was in that fantasy (except Gargantua, they did a really good job with that monstrous black hole,)  then this is the book for which you've been waiting. To say that Andy Weir gets it right is an understatement. It's been a very, very long time since I've read a book this scientifically correct. And what's even better, this book kept me on the edge of my seat just listening to it! Warning: the dialog in the book is very real. People use profanity when surprised, frightened, disappointed or emotionally overwrought - just like real people. I'd have to say the book's a PG-13 situation if you object to your children reading what they already hear every day in school from their peers. There is a more detailed review below the break.






The Martian begins on SOL 6 of the third manned mission to Mars in the not too distant future. The mission is in Acidalia Planitia, a broad, flat expanse of northern Mars where the craters are few and the rocks are small. NASA had prepared the site for a 30-day mission starting two years earlier when they had landed the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) there to start making fuel for the crew's return to their ship, Hermes, in orbit of Mars. But on SOL 6, a sand storm arises with winds far stronger than NASA has ever measured. When the wind speeds hit hurricane force, the order is given to abort the mission. At that wind speed the MAV, which is tall and pyramidal in shape, threatened to tip over. If the MAV was lost, the crew would have no way off Mars. So the crew tethers themselves together and begins the several hundred foot trek to the MAV.

While making their way through the blinding sandstorm, the wind rips the high-gain dish antenna they used to send communications to NASA away from its mount. It smashes into the receiving antenna, and array of dipoles, and breaks one of them off. The wind then launches the antenna section like a javelin through the thin Martian atmosphere now think with sand. The projectile hits astronaut Mark Watney, the crew's botanist and mechanical engineer, end on penetrating his Extravehicular Activity (EVA) suit and his lower abdomen only being stopped by his pelvis. His suit immediately loses all pressure. The rest of the crew sees this on their helmet readouts. Very shortly after that, Mark Watney's biotelemetry, which they can also see in their helmet displays, stops. He is dead. The mission commander makes the difficult decision to save five and they leave Mars to grieve for their lost comrade later.

However, Mark Watney did not die. The rod, as well as penetrating him, also penetrated his suit's bio-telemetry module rendering it non-functional. And while his suit did lose all pressure and thus oxygen, Mark Watney landed face down in the Martian sand. His blood mixed with the sand and instantly froze where it bubbled out of his suit. As he was on top of it, the water did not sublimate away. The seal was enough for the suit to deal with the pressure loss. It kept just enough oxygen in the suit for Watney to regain consciousness. He then used a repair kit that they all carried to seal the puncture, after he removed the antenna from his hip that is. Then he made it back to the habitation module, known as the HAB, which was designed to withstand winds much stronger than Mars could ever sustain, and which also had prescription painkillers, a needle and suture thread.

After Watney repaired himself, he took stock of his situation. He was stranded on Mars with no way to talk to NASA because the communications array was destroyed. There were three other backup systems, but they were all on the MAV - now in orbit. He had the HAB which would keep him alive for the immediate future, and could make oxygen out of the carbon dioxide in Mar's atmosphere. He had 24 days of rations for six people which gives him 144 SOLS of food. He had a similar amount of bagged water, and a water reclamation unit that could convert his urine to potable water. He wouldn't die right away, but the more distant future looked bleak. He had no way to get off Mars, and the next mission, Ares 4, wasn't scheduled to land for another two years though it's MAV was already on the surface making fuel for their return to orbit. Also, the Ares 4 mission site was at crater Schiaparelli some 3200 kilometers away. He has two rovers, but they weren't designed for such long trips. Being an astronaut, Watney keeps a log (in fact much of his story is first person through the logs,) if only for posterity's sake. His first entry is, "I am SO FUCKED."

That is how Andy Weir starts The Martian, though some of the details I just gave away don't come out for a few chapters. Andy Weir does a great job of building suspense by the fact that, in situations such as these, you almost never know everything. There is no omniscient narrator in this story spoiling it. It took months before NASA even realized Mark Watney was alive. The book only gets better from there. Though the story begins as an unlikely coincidence of happenstance and bad luck, it is nevertheless entirely plausible. Stranger things have certainly happened in real life, and you only have to lookup Apollo 13 on Wikipedia to know catastrophic yet unlikely things do happen. Space exploration is a dangerous business, and Andy Weir never lets you forget that reality the entire story. Still, you won't know the final outcome until you get there.

But not once does Andy Weir ask the reader to suspend their disbelief to make the story work. Not ever, and that is so refreshing I reveled in every single oh-shit Mars threw at Mark Watney. And it wasn't just a story about Mark Watney. It was also a story about NASA, the culture of NASA, and the astronauts who carry out man's exploration of space. The Martian is as much a story about the best (and worst) aspects of human nature as it is a story about surviving alone on Mars. It's full of characters you will love and some you may even despise, but they are all real. I know people just like them, and when you start comparing fictional characters to people you really know... well, that's the hallmark of a great book.

If you still don't believe me about how good The Martian is, then here's more proof for the pudding. Andy Weir self published this book on Amazon in 2012. It sold over 10,000 copies, which is good even for a book published via traditional publishers. Then he was called by a literary agent who basically said, "You need representation and you need it now!" That almost NEVER happens. It's as unlikely as being stranded on Mars during a freak sand storm... haha. :P The book was republished traditionally in 2014 by Crown Publishing. There is also a movie starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott coming in late 2015. That says a lot of good things about this book right there.

I'm telling you, if this book doesn't win the Nebula it's because the conservative branch of sci-fi authorship, who hate everything Amazon, dis Andy Weir for originally self-publishing the novel. But hell, he made 70% on more than 10,000 copies. Even the best of the old guard only gets 10% royalties, and most of them don't get movie contracts. And this book is an absolute gem. Hell, I'm going to buy a World Con ticket just so I can vote for it in the Hugos. Andy Weir deserves way more than that, but it's the least I can do after being so well entertained. This book gets an A+ grade.

PS: If you do decide to read this book, pull up Google Maps Mars and follow along. Any Weir really does get everything right. XD

4 comments:

  1. You've convinced me to add it to my reading list.

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  2. I have read it and enjoyed it very much. It made just about everything within reason and possible in our time.

    I am concerned how it will be pan out as a Ridley Scott vehicle staring Matt Damon. In the book, we have the privilege of soliloquy. Cant have Matt talking to a volleyball.

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  3. I think there will be plenty of "in the moment" soliloquy possibilities. I just hope they keep the author very close so they can capture Watney's voice. I listened to the audio book and the voice actor just nailed it for me. Oh, and there are no volleyballs on Mars. ;-)

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