Friday, December 2, 2016

The Martian By Andy Weir

The Martian
By Andy Weir

The Martian was a story rejected by several literary agents (meaning it never even got to the publishers), so Mr. Weir decided to post it as a serial on his web site back in 2011.  It grew popular enough that a number of people requested he post the entire thing up as a novel on Kindle.  Mr. Weir did so, charging people the grand total of 99 cents.  The Martian exploded onto the Kindle Bestseller list, selling 35,000 copies in 3 months.  This finally got the attention of publishing companies, the hardcopy publishing rights were bought by Crown (a subsidiary of Random Publishing House, the world's biggest publishing company) for about $100,000 in 2013.  By 2014 The Martian had hit the New York best seller list.  In 2015, the film directed by Ridley Scott premiered, but we're just going to focus on the novel.  This makes The Martian one of these stories that can only happen in the internet age as in 1987 this story would have ended with its’ rejection by those agents (I wonder how many of them are having second thoughts?).  While the internet has brought us a lot of rather awful things, it's also brought us some really awesome stuff like this and you know... Let people thousands of miles away from each other talk directly to each other and get to know each other but let's not focus on minor things.

Andy Weir himself is kind of a nerd's nerd.  Born in 1972, he is the only child of accelerator physicist father and electrical engineer mother, who grew up reading Asimov and Clarke.  He started working as a computer programer at the age of 15 and ended up working on Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness (on the unlikely chance he reads this, thanks for that Mr. Weir, I liked that game).  He began writing in his 20s, creating webcomics and short stories.  His most famous short story 'The Egg' has been translated into 30 different languages and been turned into a short film (not bad for a story with two speaking parts).  It's a very interesting story that can make you think, but I'm not going to go into it other than to encourage you to track it down and read it.  The Martian is his first full length published novel (his first novel “Theft of Pride” was never published but can be downloaded from his website) and was incredibly researched with Weir doing research into orbital mechanics, planetary conditions, and of course... Botany.  He is currently reported to be working on a second hard science story set on the moon from his home in California.  

But let's focus on the story in front of us.  The Martian focuses on Mark Watney, Mark is an astronaut and a scientist and in the year 2035 had the honor of being one of very few people to set foot on Mars; which is awesome.  Mark however is going to be setting a few other firsts whether he likes it or not.  Like first man to be injured on Mars or perhaps more important to the story, first guy to be ever left behind on a NASA mission.  See, while on their mission to Mars, a bit of storm kicked up and threatened to wreck their ride home.  So they were ordered to get themselves in the rocket and get off Mars.  On their way to the ship however, Watney got hit and got hit bad.  So bad, that even his space suit thought he was dead.  To be fair, he likely would have died if not a combination of Mars atmosphere and his suit not letting him bleed out.  So instead of dying, he was just knocked out in the middle of a dust storm, which lead to him being left behind.  On Mars, Mark seems to be the kind of guy who finds a 100 dollar bill on the sidewalk and gets hit by a car while picking it up honestly.  While we don't actually see the scene until a ways into the book, it is stolen by Commander Melissa Lewis.  Commander Lewis goes all out to find Mark and is only defeated by a combination of zero visibility and the fact that her ride off Mars is about to be pushed over by high winds.  Nor does she risk the crew, sending them onto the ship, when the first search fails and continuing to search solo to the very last minute.  

While the book is incredibly focused on Mark Watney and his struggle not to be killed by Mars, it doesn't neglect other characters.  The crew of the Ares III, while not given nearly as much time as Watney are given enough time for us to see them as people.  Additionally they are given their own roles and decisions that make them heroic characters in their own right.  Whether it be plotting the first mutiny in space (there are so many firsts in this book), or creating bombs to use as braking mechanisms.  The lengths they go to and the efforts they put forth to rescue Mark are pretty amazing and would make them worthy of being the center of their own novel.  I feel the most for Commander Lewis out of this group, because I'll be frank, after losing Watney and her follow up actions to rescue him... she's never going to be allowed to command space mission ever again.  That's not mentioned in the book but NASA is a government agency and well, that's how they work.  Watney is utterly fearless in his defense of her (because she made the right call) but odds are she's stuck planetside.  There's also a decent amount of attention paid to the NASA ground team, as they frantically work on ways to keep Watney alive and to bring him home.  There's a lot of attention to detail and the non-Watney parts of the books show that this was a team effort involving thousands of people at times across a number of nations, including the People's Republic of China (usually a rival of the United States) coming together in a common effort to save a man's life.  

But the meat and potatoes (heh) of the book is Watney's struggle to avoid becoming the first man to die on another planet.  Mars cuts this man no breaks, seriously this book could have been titled Mark Watney vs Mars.  Unlike more fantasy oriented stories where a man is lost on Mars (or perhaps Barsoom), the Martian environment grants him no favors.  Forget worrying about food or water, there's no air to breath except what he can make for himself.  Of course he actually does have to worry about food and water on top of that.  That said he does have some luck; given the hurried nature of the withdrawal, all of NASA's stuff got left behind!  So that means he has a fully stocked habitat made of canvas, with an oxygenator and water generation system.  He also has all the rations that the team would have eaten during the mission!  Which he will have eaten his way through in several hundred days.  Luckily for Watney, he's a botanist, and since NASA believes having only one job and not being cross-trained within an inch of your life and sanity is a sin worthy of the lowest circle of hell, he's also been trained in engineering.  I like how there is an actual freak out where Watney screams and howls that he's fucked and doomed and so on and so forth.  It makes him human.  I also like that after a good night's sleep and a decent breakfast, he puts his big boy pants on and commits to fighting for every resource, every advantage and every second of life he can.  Watney's will to survive and to do whatever it takes to live is his biggest and best advantage in this battle, because it doesn't matter what learning you have, or what tools you have at your disposal if you don't have the will to put it use.  Watney displays that will in spades, but does so in a believable fashion.  Engaging in black humor, moments of despair and worry but above all refusing to give up until he's actually dead.  That's admirable.  

This book also shows a conflict that I haven't really covered that often in this review series.  That of man vs nature, most of the books I've reviewed have been man vs man (or man vs magic thingy but details).  Honestly I usually prefer that kind of struggle.  There's a certain depth that can only be acquired when two different intelligent beings are locked in a struggle in my opinion.  That said, there are definitely things that can be done with man vs nature here that you cannot do with other struggles and it's a good idea to step back and appreciate just how dangerous “nature” can be.  That can be a foreign idea to us in the first world sometimes.  At least until a tornado hits, or an earthquake happens... or a firestorm engulfs an entire town.  A reminder of just how frail we are against the universe is sometimes necessary, as is the showing of how far we’ve come in mastering our surroundings and how far we can go in mastering environments that nature never intended for us to experience.  Mr. Weir using Mark Watney as a demonstration of these two ideas shows a great talent for communicating and showcasing both at once, which I find impressive. It's very easy for a story to stray over the line into navel gazing, maudlin moaning over the frailty of human life or stumble over into a boastful squeal of triumph of the will over nature itself.  Instead Mr. Weir treads the line very well, letting us feel awe and fear at the sheer danger that the alien land of Mars represents, while displaying the determination and strength that allow Watney to survive against all odds in that environment.

The biggest weakness of the book is the format in my opinion.  It's mostly done in a series of first person journal entries from Watney's point of view but doesn't let us really get to know the main character except what he chooses to write.  We know he's a credit to the space program, very intelligent and determined and from Chicago but... not much more.   I suppose that's a benefit in some ways.  I don't know anything about Watney's political views, or his thoughts on religion, I'm not even sure what his hobbies are... I just know that he really hates disco and is the best damn botanist on Mars.  Which helps make room for the readers to project onto him and make him over a bit in the reader's image.  This isn't always a bad thing but I do find myself biased against it (blame Stephenie Meyer, who in my opinion abused the technique).  I do hope in the future that Mr. Weir opts to go a little deeper on his character work.  There's not much in the way of action here either, that said the book isn't what I would call boring by a long shot, but I am also left wondering how Mr. Weir would handle writing a more traditional action scene.  Ah well, maybe next book.

The Martian is, despite my caviling, a great read.  If you have even a vague interest in science or in the space program, hell if you enjoy stories like Robinson Crusoe, this book will have something for you.  I'm giving The Martian by Andy Wier a -A.  Go read it and watch the movie.  You'll have fun.

Our yearly hiatus approaches!  But first!  We will ride forth from the Steppes and crush the thrones of the world beneath our feet!  We will shake the pillars of heaven and reorder the earth!  We will go forth with Genghis Khan!

This review Edited by Dr. Ben Allen

1 comment:

  1. I love this book. It's one of the few books that meets all my criteria for adding a physical copy to my library.