Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Martian

And we're back, this time with a shorter review style that will hopefully make this work better in the long run. 

Rating: 4 stars
Length: A bit longer than average but uses space well (381 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: originally in 2011 via Andy Weir's blog, now available in trade paperback from Broadway Books
Premise: Mark Watney was thrilled to be on the Ares Three mission to Mars...until the dust storm led his team to believe that he died there and they left him behind. Now he has to survive on a planet inhospitable to life and hope that he can let anyone know that he's alive.
Warnings: lots of swearing
Recommendation: This is amazing from start to finish. Read it if you're willing to put up with some slight slowness at the beginning-- believe me, it pays off. 

Very minor spoilers for the book, but nothing that you couldn't pick up from the movie trailer or from the cover copy of some of the movie tie-in editions (no specific events spoiled). 

Bonus this time around: I'm seeing the movie this Friday and plan to do a short review of that this weekend as well. Here's hoping it lives up the book.

Why this book put me on a sci-fi kick again:

Mark Watney's voice absolutely makes this book from the very first sentence. He survives being stranded and an inch away from death on the strength of gallows humor and raw ingenuity, rarely allowing himself to linger on the possibility of death. Weir establishes that Mark is lonely and stir-crazy and sometimes scared-- he even cries once, and the rarity of that reaction demonstrates just how much he's been leaning on that sense of humor to survive. It works especially well when he's alone on the surface of Mars and realizes how large the planet is and how alone he is-- you can really feel the solitude and silence of the dust storms in some scenes, almost taste the bleakness.

He gets agitated over the scientific limits of what he can do (his initial plan to grow food was the one place where the science wasn't holding my attention just yet), but he also jumps into one thing at a time and somehow managed to get me interested in atmospheric gas composition for the one and only time in my life.

Andy Weir plays very fair on these ingenious points-- Mark doesn't solve any problems by inventing new scientific principles or discovering that Mars secretly does have running water (well, it does now, but Weir didn't know.) Instead, he does a lot of very careful math and recycles every bit of useful material he can find, often taking risks that NASA safety procedures would never allow. It makes the view of Mark in his inflatable habitat all the more compelling, since he could die at any time and keeps running into obstacles presented by a dangerously barren environment. When something goes wrong, it's because a piece of technology fails, he's miscalculated something, or the environment reacts in a way that he simply didn't notice at the time. After reading a lot of space opera, it's refreshing to see something hold itself so strictly to the rules of our reality.

Just when Mark's voice is getting lonely, the narrative cuts back to the NASA team on Earth as they try to figure out what went wrong and whether they can retrieve his body. The scientists are desperate to save him but also have to fend off the whole world's attention when everyone else learns that Mark Watney is alive and stranded. I love the way they manage it: everyone from the interns to the director of the Mars operations to the assorted scientists on staff has something to add, but many of them also clash with each other. Even in moments of glowing teamwork, they have substantive disagreements about what to do and how to present their decisions to the public. These people feel like real scientists, complete with tinkering and personality quirks and complete absorption in the work they do better than anyone else could. I admire the stylistic decision to only give real conversation time to people directly involved in the rescue efforts, with everyone on Earth contributing to a sense of background tension-- it keeps the story from getting bloated with reaction shots from everyone who might possibly be relevant. 

The red pen: 

This one's hard to pin down because I have very few concrete complaints, just a general hesitation when I was thinking about giving it four and a half stars. (Nothing gets five stars unless I am struck dumb with its celestial beauty.)

The issue, though, is that almost everyone entertaining in the story starts to sound a bit like Mark Watney after a while-- funny, sarcastic, prone to swearing. It keeps the dialogue moving quickly, and it's effective for characters who don't usually sound that way (Commander Lewis springs to mind) because it's a point of emphasis. For the most part, though, there's not a lot of differentiation in character voices. The moments where people do sound completely like themselves absolutely shine, but Weir doesn't have quite as deft a touch with characters of other types, or with giving people senses of humor that don't sound like Watney during the particularly good zingers. This is a story of one man and also a story about humanity, but the intermediate level of other people as people could use work; if everyone matched the personal edge that crewmate Johansson has in one memorable scene, this could work as a group drama as well.

The verdict: I haven't read a lot of hard sci-fi lately, but this hooked me at maybe twenty pages in and didn't let go. It's intelligent, beautifully researched, and funny, with emotion dropped in sparing enough notes that every tense moments resonates. If you like science fiction at all, give this one a try. 

Enjoyed this? Try:

~Cory Doctorow's Little Brother takes a similar approach to explaining technology (though that focuses on computers rather than botany and physics). The narrator is interested in teaching, and the details are pitched at the perfect level for the technologically inexperienced reader to mostly follow along without feeling like reality is being dumbed down.

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