Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Review: The Martian

Title: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Pages: 369
ISBN: 9780141042374
Publisher: Crown (US) / Del Rey (UK)
Published: 2014
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy from publisher


Buy it from:
The Book Depository (US edition)
The Book Depository (UK edition)

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?
Mark Watney is the unluckiest man in the solar system. During an expedition to Mars a freak accident in a dust storm leaves him stranded alone on the red planet. Everyone believes him dead. Somehow he has to figure out a way to survive until the next Mars mission arrives. In four years' time.

The Martian starts off with one of the best openings I’ve read in quite some time
I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion.
Fucked.
If that doesn’t hook you from the start, I don’t know what will. He then continues calmly cataloguing all the methods of his eventual demise:
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.
The story is told in the form of log entries chronicling Mark’s daily struggles and experiences as he faces each new obstacle that gets thrown his way. This has the potential of becoming tedious to read, but Mark is such an amazingly likeable character with an insatiable sense of humour and wit that you find yourself jumping at the chance to see what each entry holds.

It’s also this coping mechanism of humour combined with an almost MacGyver-like resourcefulness that carries him through disasters which would send other people into a complete spiral of despair.
I wonder what NASA would think about me fucking with the RTG like this. They’d probably hide under their desks and cuddle with their slide rules for comfort. (page 77)
Technically it’s “Carl Sagan Memorial Station.” But with all due respect to Carl, I can call it whatever the hell I want. I’m the King of Mars. (page 97)
There are plenty of other quips like these that you can’t help but snigger at. (Not to mention the absolute hatred for potatoes and disco music he develops) It’s clear that Mark doesn’t let anything get him down even if Mars is repeatedly trying to kill him.

NASA eventually figures out that Watney is still alive and that’s when things really get interesting. The back and forth between Watney’s viewpoint and that of the NASA team as they frantically work to get him back home provides a much needed counterpoint. I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice it to say that they eventually come up with a rescue mission that makes the Curiosity landing look like child’s play; a rescue so insanely risky that it just might work.

The ending had me on the edge of my seat, I even caught myself holding my breath when the moment of truth arrived; if my thumbs hadn’t been occupied by holding the book I would’ve been holding both of them too. Take the excitement of watching the Curiosity landing live (seven minutes of pure terror), multiply that by ten and you’ll have a rough idea of how utterly transfixing it is. It had me reading till the early hours of the morning, I just couldn't put it down. In the cold weather we are experiencing that's a recommendation all by itself.

Being somewhat of a space geek myself I really couldn’t find fault with any of the science (except the event at the start of the book, but the author should be allowed some license for dramatic effect. Hint: air density). All the rest of the technology and science is spot on. I loved the detailed descriptions and mathematics of pure survival. You might even learn a few things along the way.

One of the criticisms I’ve seen mentioned is that Weir glosses over the monetary cost involved in saving a single human life. Space exploration has the capacity of inspiring and uniting humanity like nothing else ever could. Think about the detrimental impact the first human death on another planet would have. NASA’s miniscule budget would be cut further, human spaceflight will come to a complete halt, set back by years until things are considered safe again, and by that time we might have lost interest in exploration altogether. On the other hand, actually saving Watney captivates the imaginations of millions, sparks international cooperation and highlights our capacity for compassion towards each other. While the expense might be a valid point to some degree I really don’t think you can put a price tag on something like that.*

The Martian is one of those huge success stories. Andy Weir initially wrote it in serial form as a hobby and posted it for free on his website. People begged him to make it available as an ebook on Amazon where it was later discovered by a publisher, which netted him an agent and then a publishing deal. In this case I can say that I’m extremely glad that his remarkable talent was discovered. The Martian is a truly amazing read.

The Verdict:
The Martian is an absolutely stunning read that showcases the perils of space exploration, but also the human tenacity for survival, for compassion and for expanding our horizons even if it's an extremely risky thing to do. This is the ultimate tale of survival, captivating from the first page until the very last. Even if science fiction isn’t something you normally read you HAVE to read this. Highly recommended!

The Rating: 8/10 (Great)

*I digress, but a question you encounter frequently is why we should waste money on space when famine and poverty is a very real problem here on Earth. When that asteroid on a collision course with us eventually heads our way the real question will be ‘why didn’t we spend more?’ NASA’s budget is miniscule in comparison to the machinery of war and the cost of entertainment. The budgets and revenue from a couple of blockbuster movies and perhaps a season or two of Game of Thrones would be able to fund NASA’s missions for a couple of decades. Think about that the next time you consider space exploration a waste of money.

A note on editions: I started reading the eARC of THE MARTIAN provided by Crown, but managed to win a signed hardback copy of the Del Rey edition from the lovely folks at Random House Struik. The page numbers provided refer to the Del Rey edition (9780091956134).

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