Friday, June 26, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir: A review

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Astronaut Mark Watney is in deep doo-doo. He is alone on Mars, left behind in a storm by his fellow crew-mates, who thought he was dead.

It all happened six days into the Ares 3 mission to Mars. The six team members had landed and set up their base on the planet and were beginning operations when an unexpectedly strong wind and dust storm hit the base and threatened to disable the craft that was their one means of escaping Mars. Their commander ordered an emergency evacuation, but, as they stumbled toward the craft, Watley was hit by an antenna that had been dislodged by the wind. It punctured his life-saving spacesuit, wounding him and knocking his unconscious body a good distance away from the rest of the crew. They immediately began searching for him, but it was hopeless. Visibility was near zero and the wind and flying debris were fierce and unrelenting.

The commander ordered her crew on board the escape vehicle while she continued the search, but soon Mark's smart suit reported his vital signs as "blood pressure - 0; pulse - 0." She had to accept that he was dead and that she would have to leave him behind. They managed to take off and leave the planet only moments before catastrophe.

But Mark wasn't dead. That NASA and JPL-designed life-saving suit had done its job, as had his own body. The coagulating blood from his wound helped to plug the hole. An alarm from the suit finally wakes him - to a world where he is the only inhabitant. An inhabitant whom his home planet believes is dead and who has no means of communicating to them the fact that he isn't.

This book is an absolute joyride from beginning to end. We meet Mark through his personal log entries and learn that he is a botanist and a mechanical engineer. As it turns out, that is a valuable combination for devising his strategy for survival and planning how he will rendezvous with the next Mars mission that will be landing a few years in the future.

But the voice that we hear through those logs is not a dry scientific monologue. Mark Watney is a cheeky, irreverent, almost unbelievably resilient, and very funny guy. His entries are a hoot to read - especially the ones where he takes inventory of what he has left and what the other team members have left behind and realizes that the sole entertainment left to him are bad '70s television and disco music. Plus an e-reader with Agatha Christie mysteries.

He finds that he has all he needs to sustain life, at least for a while, and he has a whole full tool box to assist him in maintaining and modifying equipment. Most importantly, he has duct tape.

Also, I have duct tape, like you buy at a hardware store. Turns out even NASA can't improve on duct tape.

Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.

Soon the first-person narrative of Watney shifts to third person when we get to see NASA's point of view. One of their sharp nerds begins noticing unusual details in satellite images from the Mars site. Someone is deliberating rearranging things. That can only mean one thing - Mark Watney is alive.

Things begin to look a little brighter when the ever-resourceful Watney finds a way to communicate. NASA/JPL basically drop everything else to try to find a way to bring him home. Soon that mission becomes a global cause, as other countries offer their assistance.

Meanwhile, Mark's Ares 3 teammates still think he's dead because NASA refuses to tell them he's alive for fear it would distract from their own efforts to get back to Earth.

Weir has written a rousing great tale that is a fun read from beginning to end. He doesn't stint on science and math. His character, Mark, explains all of his actions using the appropriate scientific terminology but he does it in a playful and witty way that never drags.

All of the characters in the book exhibit that sarcastic and rather dark sense of humor that I guess we've sort of come to expect from the NASA characters that we've met in movies over the years. In fact, I saw that someone had called this book the love child of Apollo 13 and Castaway. Not a bad analogy, actually.

The point is, though, that you don't really have to be a big sci-fi fan to enjoy this book. It's just a very well-written and exciting tale. But if you lived through the Apollo missions as I did, or even if you just enjoyed Apollo 13, the movie, you'll find a lot that seems familiar here.

At one point, as Mark tries to steel himself for his next big action on his lonely planet, his log entry reads:

I need to ask myself, 'What would an Apollo astronaut do?' He'd drink three whiskey sours, drive his Corvette to the launchpad, then fly to the moon in a command module smaller than my Rover. Man those guys were cool.

Mark Watney is pretty cool, too.


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4 comments:

  1. Mars always seems to fascinate. The book sounds interesting, I used to read lots of science fiction in my younger days. The choice of music and reading material seems a little far-fetched.;-)

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    1. It seemed pretty far-fetched to Mark Watney as well! It was left behind by one of his teammates.

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  2. I loved The Martian. In fact, it was among my best readings of last year. I loved that Weir started the book with profanity, because what better way to be f..ed is there than being stranded on your own in Mars?!

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    1. His language was certainly descriptive of his situation and he pulled no punches. Definitely one of the things that I liked about his "log entries."

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