Monday, February 02, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

Andy Weir's The Martian must be the most exciting book I've read recently. It delivers the kind of edge-of-your-seats action that can only be expected from the latest summer blockbuster. Indeed, the film is being hastily adapted into just that - a big budget Hollywood spectacle starring Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, directed by veteran Ridley Scott.

I really, really hope Ridley Scott doesn't mess this one up, like he did with his recently movies. I'm so in love with the novel that I would never be able to forgive him. Although, ostensibly, all that the main protagonist, Mark Watney, is doing is fixing one thing after another in a desperate attempt at survival. There isn't one single page of The Martian that's boring or superfluous.

The Martian reads more like a film script or screenplay than a novel. But that is not a bad thing. The format is perfect for the story that it is trying to tell. The words are visually evocative, bringing the alien world of Mars alive in the viewers mind. The humor is sharp and riotous which provides welcome relief from the grim-dark reality of the survival tale.

There has been some criticism of how cheerful Watney remains through his year and a half long ordeal on Mars. But I totally bought it. For one, he's an astronaut. They are selected specifically for the hardiness of their characters and the exuberance of their spirits. Second, it is human nature to not give up if there is even a small credible change of survival. People don't just up and die, even in the most dire of circumstances.

But more than a tale of survival, the novel is an ode to the scientific method. There is hardly any technobabble in this story. Most of the technology depicted already exists or can be easily conceived to exist in a couple of decades. And against the backdrop of this almost realistic technology, the author weaves a story out of one science experiment after another. Using high school chemistry to make water from rocket fuel. Using high school botany to start a jury-rigged potato farm on the Martian soil. Crisis after crisis is solved with aplomb using simple math and common sense. As an engineer, it is hard to not break into a cheer every time Watney averts yet another near-death scenario by remembering the basic laws of physics.

Of course, this is exactly what the folks back on Earth are doing as they voyeuristically watch Watney using imagery from satellites orbiting Mars. As the story progresses, millions of dollars are spent to rescue the stranded astronaut and great sacrifices are made by everyone involved. And even though the author doesn't ask it, the uncomfortable question inevitably arises in the readers mind. Is it worth spending all this money on saving this single starving astronaut  when millions are starving right here on earth? Weir briefly comments towards the climax of the story that yes, it is worth it because being human means never leaving a crew member behind. There is some truth to it but I'm afraid it's not the whole truth.

All in all, The Martian is a must read for any aficionado of the recent rise of hard SF stories. If you loved Gravity and Europa Report last year, you're going to adore The Martian.

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