Something a bit different for the Sci Cam blog and myself this week – a book review.
The Martian – Andy Weir
From the back cover:
“I’m stranded on Mars.
I have no way to communicate with Earth.
If the Oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate.
If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst.
If the Habitat breaches, I’ll just kind of explode.
If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
Wow, what a hook. Right away it’s clear what kind of book this is going to be – it’s a tale of survival, and one that sucked me in from very early on. Sure, a lot of what happens is slightly contrived, but given that the plot revolves around one man stranded when the rest of his fellow astronauts abandon the mission on Mars and head back home, there do have to be a few contrivances to even allow the book to start. But I never found them jarring, and really got involved with the scenario and Mark Watney’s survival.
Considering the amount of time we spend with Mark Watney, he doesn’t really become as rounded a character as I perhaps would have liked. Sure, he can be a bit of a joker, but his snarky sense of humour in places could have come from any number of characters, and obviously he’s incredibly determined because watching a character fall into the depths of despair at the seemingly impossible situation they found themselves in probably wouldn’t be enjoyable. Having said that, there was enough of a human being there for me to want him to survive ; despite the obvious difficulty with actually giving him situations where he can actually show his character his narrated log offers enough for me to believe him as a character and while thankfully he never wanders down the road of naming pet rocks, he does get emotionally attached to the systems he puts into place to help himself alive, which I could easily imagine happening, and does help to humanize him.
And boy do things keep happening. Apart from the obvious problems from the initial setup he encounters more problems as his time on Mars and they all come at him from different with reasons ranging from the Martian weather to the tools not having been expected to have been used for so long, to a simple moment of carelessness that seems incredibly innocuous but leads to a massively detrimental change in Mark’s conditions. When I got to that final problem I was shocked, and really felt for Mark. Would all of his hard work be for naught?
But if there’s one part of Mark’s character that really does shine through, it’s that he’s a problem solver. I absolutely loved the way that he worked through each problem that came up, solving it bit by bit and giving justifications for what he’d done, and fixing the realistic-seeming problems that came up as he worked. I never checked any of the numbers or indeed any of the science involved across the book because that would have meant jarring myself out of the story, but they all felt right and it was great to have what seemed to be decent Physics threaded through the pages. The book cover contains a quote from the Financial times describing the book as “Gravity meets Robinson Crusoe” but I felt that ‘The Martian’ was superior to ‘Gravity’ in a few ways. Firstly, it didn’t have obviously (to me, other people’s views can and do vary) dodgy Physics at what was clearly meant to be a dramatic and emotional point. Secondly, even though I’ve said that Mark Watney’s character isn’t as well defined as I usually like my characters, he still feels much more like a person than Dr Ryan Stone in ‘Gravity’ ever did. I also rooted for him much more, likely because of his determination in the face of problems, while Ryan Stone seemed much more passive to me. I never really connected with ‘Gravity’ while ‘The Martian” grabbed me and kept me reading and rooting for Mark all the way.
Finally, there’s one more element of the book that I’d like to praise. The remains of several previous unmanned missions to Mars make appearances, and by linking the story to the present in such a tangible way Andy Weir gave the book that extra resonance for me. Sure, we might not send a manned mission to Mars in the timescale suggested by the book. We probably can’t predict the technology that we’ll send, even though the tech used in the book is at least feasible (although I do still worry about the solar radiation). And hopefully we won’t end up with an astronaut stranded on Mars. But by showing the rovers that in real life are already there Andy Weir reminded me that even though we might not send a manned mission to Mars at all we’ve already made the first steps and they aren’t science fiction anymore. We’ve already achieved something amazing. And with people as brave and resourceful as Mark Watney, who knows where we’ll end up?