Friday, October 2, 2015

Book Review - Andy Weir's The Martian

The Martian by Andy Weir
Published by: Broadway Books
Publication Date: February 11th, 2014
Format: Paperback, 387 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Mark Whatney has inadvertently been left behind on Mars. He was part of the Ares 3 mission to the red planet which had to be aborted due to a dust storm and he was left for dead. He doesn't blame his crew mates, they did what they had to do. They did what he would have done in their situation. The problem is, how to tell them he's still alive? Which he won't be for much longer unless he figures some things out, like food. Plus, even if they did know it's not like they can just turn around and pick him up. His life has now become a struggle to survive, but that survival won't mean much unless at the end of it there's some way off the planet. He concentrates on one task at a time. First food and water. If he doesn't have food and water there's no point. So it looks like he's going to get very sick of potatoes, but you eat what you have, or in this case can grow. Once this hurtle is cleared, he needs to get the word out he's alive. Luckily for him Mars is scattered with the debris from past and future missions. The only problem is Mars is big and to get to these other sites is epic journeys of not just days, but weeks. And if while trying to get to these sites something happens, he is cut off from his Habitat and his food supply. But soon Earth is alerted to his survival and they are just as committed to bringing Mark home as Mark himself is. Each and every day is a struggle, but with his unique sense of humor and his captain's never ending supply of 70s television and disco music, he's going to try to make it, to survive being the first person to ever live on another planet. And if he does survive, he will never eat another potato again.

Every once in awhile there's book that you'd not heard anything about and then all of a sudden, bam, it's all everyone is talking about. There are huge endcap displays in stores that look like they have been ransacked, there's a movie adaptation in the pipeline, famous actors are interested in starring, all your friends have read it, the book is ubiquitous. And you'll be intrigued. You'll pick it up out of interest, and realize it's the kind of book that has mass appeal because it's nothing very original and bores you to tears. I have been sucked into this frenzy more then once. Dan Brown, Stieg Larsson, Gillian Flynn, all overlooked authors until they were propelled forward by this weird cultural phenomenon. Therefore when people started talking about The Martian, I was hesitant to say the least. I wasn't going to be caught in a Girl on the Train scenario again. My decision to read the book started to waiver when I saw the trailer for the movie, yes, starring a famous actor. Yet I held firm. But then people's opinions who I trusted as being very harsh started raving about this book. And I'm only human. I caved. And I'm really glad I did. It's an intense book that is meant to be devoured in as few sittings as possible. It's by no means a perfect book, while the first person narration of Mark Watney is spot on, the third person narration back on Earth is choppy, which, let's be honest, is to be expected from a first time author. But what I liked was the book felt like a Michael Crichton book grown up, the science was more accurate, and Mark was a wonderfully snarky narrator, perfect for the disillusioned reader of today. The irony here is that I was at a Michael Crichton movie when my resolve started to waiver. That's right folks, Jurassic World brought me to my generation's Crichton!

Recently one of my friends asked me if she should read this book. I said yes, obviously, but I gave her the caveat that it should be read only if she had the time to devote to reading this book in one go. This book is so suspenseful that you will struggle to set it down. For awhile I wondered if it was just the plight of Mark, the question surrounding his survival. This book is very realistic so his survival isn't a given and I am not going to tell you how it turns out. But I think the real reason is that everything is in the moment, which ups the suspense. What I mean by this is that there's no long expositions about his life back on Earth, his parents in Chicago whom he must miss, etc etc. Yes, his parents are mentioned, but that is all. We know nothing about his past life or his future life, we are living his life moment to moment with him. It's almost like we have a front row seat to his subconscious and survival is the only thing that is allowed to take up valuable brain power. That and bitching about 70s television shows. This means that anyone picking up this book will relate to his situation. He has a distinct personality, but at the same time he is a blank slate, he could come from any background so he could be you or me. Then there's the 70s television and music that are his bane and savior. Everyone has seen these shows or heard the music sometime in their life, it's a cultural touchstone. By including this in the story it gives us something more to relate to in a situation where we feel the question of Mark's survival but in a situation that we would never find ourselves in. So while we might never find ourselves on Mars, we can feel his pain of watching Three's Company and how lame it was when Crissy left.

And I needed that little connection, that 70s kitsch, because there is no way in hell you will ever see me going to Mars. It's not just that this book brought home how I would obviously die very quickly in this situation, it's that I never want to be in this situation in the first place. It says a lot for this book that I enjoyed it so much when I am now and never will be interested in space travel. Yes, the stars and outer space are interesting. I look forward to updates from Mars and the search for intelligent life and when will they reinstate Pluto, but as for wanting to be an astronaut? No chance in hell. I have never wanted to actually go into space myself. I am firmly of the couch surfing the galaxies school. It always mystified me that kids growing up wanted to be astronauts, firefighters, and the president. I wanted to sit and draw, not be shot up into space, trapped in a burning building, or have to make decisions with the fate of the world in jeopardy. Yet reading this book, I can see why people might want to venture out into the unknown. Again, I would die in five seconds, but the day to day survival of Mark, how he works things out, how he messes up, how he triumphs in the face of adversity, this is what an astronaut should be. They should be someone to look up to and admire for what they have done. Yes, going to the moon and back, that's kind of cool, but surviving against all odds for such a long period of time on an alien world? Now that deserves respect. That deserves the accolades of the first men in space.

I think I've also just inadvertently answered my own question I was about to posit... I mean, how realistic is it that NASA would spend SO MUCH MONEY to save Mark? So, as per what I just said, maybe it's because he is the ideal astronaut, the hero everyone has been waiting to come along to add new life into NASA. He's the only human to have lived on another planet! But realistically? Would this play out as it did fictionally in real life? So much of this book is based on real science and real scenarios, it's oddly the most human aspect that I question, and that's would they actual attempt to rescue Mark? It's not JUST the money, though that would be a big concern, it's more human nature. Our attention span as humans keeps shrinking more and more. We like everything in small digestible bites. Anything that is too long loses our interest and here we're supposed to believe that the world as a whole was invested in Mark Whatney for 687 days! That is almost two years! Could the interest in him really stay at fever pitch? Could they really have a thirty minute show daily on the news networks just devoted to him? Well, yes, the news networks can spin nothing into a show, just watch the news sometimes to see, but would people keep watching? I think interest would be at the beginning and at the end. But would that end interest make the pay out of all this time and money worth it? Maybe I'm just cynical, but I don't buy it. Yes, call me contradictory that I buy everything on Mars but have no faith in humanity. And in fact, I believe it's far more likely that they would just hush it all up. Sweep Mark under the carpet and call his death an unfortunate accident.

While I really liked this book there's a part of me that can never love it. I'm just not geeky enough, in the science vein. I could out geek anyone on books and TV, but science, I've never been the biggest fan of science. Yes, I am glad it's there, I just wish I hadn't ever had to take any in school because for me I've never found it relevant. Even being forced to take "Physics in the Arts" in undergrad where they try to focus the science on things that will interest artists, like the chemistry behind developing photos and sound waves in music, I was still bored stiff. Therefore when the book would sometimes go off on a sciencey tangent it would lose me a bit until the next rift on Dukes of Hazzard, where the police should have totally just gone to their house and arrested them and avoided all the car chases. But that's me, I'm the Dukes of Hazzard girl not the "what is it that makes soil viable" girl. And while some of the science was fascinating to me, like how to make soil viable on Mars, there was that other part of me going, but all the science... why all the science? Which again feeds back into why I would never be an astronaut and why I would be dead in seconds. Not only do I not have the passion and desire, but I lack the know-how. But even with all the science that sometimes bogs down the narrative in my opinion, it's real science, and I have to applaud that. Now, if we could make this actually a reality in my lifetime, that would be really cool, you know, for me to watch from my sofa. Elon Musk better get working on this...


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