Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Martian, by Andy Weir

Abandoned on Mars, a science nerd geeks his way home.

The Martian

Crown, 2012, 369 pages

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.

Now, he's sure he'll be the first person to die there.

After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive - and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue 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 kill 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. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

"So that's the situation. I'm stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I'm dead. I'm in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days. If the oxygenator breaks down, I'll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I'll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I'll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I'll eventually run out of food and starve to death. So yeah, I'm fucked."

I'm late to this one; pretty much everyone else has already read it, or seen the movie, so you probably know the plot. A botanist finds himself abandoned on Mars, through a series of unfortunate and improbable events that left him stranded when the rest of the crew was forced to launch, leaving what they thought was his dead body behind. Over the next two years or so, he is forced to survive and solve one problem after another while NASA tries to engineer a rescue.

This is very much a Man-against-Nature survival story. There are no villains, just a little bit of politicking back on Earth. Everyone is pulled into Mark Watney's epic survival saga, with the whole world watching, as I imagine would actually happen in such a real-life scenario. There is a feelgood nature to watching everyone pull together, with even the Chinese getting in on the act (not without some quid pro quo, of course). The sort of the story that ends with the hero reflecting on humanity's essential oneness.

"Every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it's true. If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it's found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who just don't care, but they're massively outnumbered by the people who do. And because of that, I had billions of people on my side."

Yeah, not sure I buy that, but it is a nice image, the idea of people from Washington to Beijing to Moscow to London all tuned in watching to see if one American astronaut survives his rendezvous with his rescue mission. Watney also reflects a little on the cost of his rescue - America is spending hundreds of millions to save one man, and a few other once-in-a-lifetime scientific missions are scrapped to put their resources in service to bringing him home. Is it all worth it? Is it worth it to spend billions to go to the moon, or Mars, in the first place, where contrary to decades of science fiction, it is very unlikely we're actually going to find anything profitable or useful, let alone a financially viable colony?

I'm in the "Heck yeah, that's why we monkeys evolved opposable thumbs" camp, but I know others feel differently. The Martian, though, is very much for folks who find the idea of spending insane amounts of money on spectacular projects of dubious benefit inspiring.

Mark Watney's voice is nerdy and chipper, even after the seventeenth time he survives an "Oh shit!" moment. Things go wrong, over and over again, until you're just waiting to see how Mars will try to kill him next, and what unlikely solution he will pull out of his ass to survive. Most of the science seemed solid to me — Weir goes into detail enumerating calories, kilograms, and kilowatts for everything Watney has to do, and it seems plausible, but I'm sure real scientists have checked the math. Mark Watney is like an ultimate Boy Scout on the most epic camping trip gone wrong in history. Besides the math and science and near death experiences, there are a lot of jokes about 70s TV and disco.

Aside from Watney, the other characters are fairly flat, being little more than sketches to render marginally distinct identities, but we do get to see through their eyes how Watney's adventure looks from Earth, and to his former teammates. Characterization is not Weir's strength: it's cleverly making a bunch of science geekery dramatic.

I liked The Martian and can see why it became a hit: Weir captured lightning in a bottle with a highly relateable premise that would attract even non-SF fans, and kept things simple and believable, even for the folks who probably have no idea if Watney is spouting technobabble when he explains how he grows potatoes on Mars and hydrolyzes his urine to create rocket fuel. But I did find the constant upbeat nerd jokes from a man trapped on Mars for over a year tiresome after a while; in the epilogue, we see hints of the toll this adventure took on him, but during his time on Mars, he gets frustrated, scared, and bored, but never shows signs of really succumbing to stress or depression or despair. Maybe he's really just that resolute, or maybe he hides it well, or maybe Weir is better at writing quips about Iron Man and "that's what she said" jokes than exploring human psychology in as much detail as he explores biology and physics.

Also by Andy Weir: My review of Artemis.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: andy weir, books, reviews, science fiction

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