Release Date: February 11, 2014
(self published in 2011)
Now, wait just one gosh darned minute.
Three times – three times! – Andy Weir’s The Martian has crossed my desk, and each time I passed on reading it because I had heard that it was too technical, too scientific, not enough drama. I don’t have time to read all the books I want to/others want me to, so I wasn’t going to go out on a limb for a dry, boring, intellectual book, even if it was “all the rage.”
What the heck were “they” thinking in calling this book “too” technical, too scientific? What the heck was I thinking, listening to them? The Martian is anything but dry, boring and… okay, I’ll give you intellectual. But it’s also fantastic.
Yes, The Martian is very technical. Yes, there is a heckuva lot of science in it. It’s about near future, real world space travel, for cryin’ out loud! It channels NASA and the JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), not the United Federation of Planets. But there’s drama. Oh, yeah, there’s drama. This is one of the few books I’ve read where I actually sped through the pages at the end – not because I wanted to wisk through them or felt like I had to gloss over them, but because I was so psyched to find out what happened I could barely wait to let my mind register the words themselves. Because I cared.
Okay, let me stop fan girl crushing and back up a bit.
First off, I’m not going to tell you too much about the story. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t read the book, or those who plan on seeing the movie (opening October 2). All one needs to know is that a two month NASA mission to Mars goes bad when a mega-sandstorm hits. With the MAV (Mars ascent vehicle) in peril, the members of the crew have to get off the surface, stat. But on the way back to the MAV, botanist/engineer Mark Watney gets sideswiped by debris and then violently blown away in the gale; his spacesuit rips, his helmet fractures. All his life support diagnostic numbers drop to zero, and he is presumed dead. Although it is agonizing, his body is left behind because recovering it would imperil the others.
The thing is, Mark isn’t dead. A remarkable combination of technical wizardry and downright luck keeps him alive, and he makes it back to the Hab (the Habitat – the living/working quarters for crew members while on the planet) battered and bruised, but alive. Now he has to figure out how to live on a planet that doesn’t support life until the next Mars mission can come and pick him up – in four years.
So yeah…. Survival science. Lots of survival science. No miraculous coincidences, no alien saviors, no unexplainable circumstances. Lots of calculations. Lots of trouble shooting, lots of rational macgyvering, lots of trying to figure out how to keep from dying. Some potentially catastrophic mistakes. And a few bad ‘70s television shows.
What really makes the book work is the main character, Mark Watney. He is so well written, so believable. His cheeky, pragmatic attitude makes even the geekiest science passages entertaining. The journal entries that comprise the bulk of the narrative are affable, knowledgeable, realistic and human. While he knows he’s working against the odds – and he doesn’t sugarcoat those odds – he never gives up; he lets his know-how and imagination create challenges to be met rather than obstacles to overcome. (It’s going to be a treat watching Matt Damon bring this character to life.) As the flight psychologist for the Mars mission says about Mark, besides his being “particularly resourceful and a good problem-solver”:
Also, he’s a good-natured man. Usually cheerful, with a great sense of humor. He’s quick with a joke. In the months leading up to the launch, the crew was put through a grueling training schedule. They all showed signs of stress and moodiness. Mark was no exception, but the way he showed it was to crack more jokes and get everyone laughing.
A really good guy, everyone agrees on that. Especially devastating for him to be lost, presumed dead. Especially devastating to realize he is alive, and not be able to get to him due to the very real limitations of space travel.
Oh, yeah. That may not be action-packed drama, but it’s palpable drama, nonetheless.
And about that science? Yeah, it’s thick. It permeates the narrative. It has to – that’s the only way Mark is going to survive, is by using the science he has available. And because the science is so pervasive, we feel like we are reading truth (and as far as I understand from doing some basic research, the science is solid; author Andy Weir is the son of a particle-physicist father and an electrical-engineer mother; a computer scientist student and a software programmer, as well as an aficionado of science fiction – he knows his stuff).
Think of it this way: when you watch Fred Astaire dance, you don’t need to know the steps to perceive the grace and beauty. When you watch Bruce Lee fight (or Jackie Chan, for that matter), you don’t need to be a martial artist to know you are seeing a master at work. Sure, those are cinematic references, but the same holds true in the narrative of The Martian. You don’t need to understand the science Mark Watney is using to be aware of the truth – and the importance – of it. Anything less would make the story far less genuine.
And it is genuine. Oh, my, but is it genuine. This is truly science fiction at its best. Don’t let the fear of science keep you from reading The Martian. It’s a funny, gripping, totally absorbing tale that will keep you at the edge of your seat and marveling at human ingenuity, as well as chuckling at its humanity.
By all means – read this book before the movie comes out. The movie may have the great visuals, but it’s the reality of the science and the gutsy spirit of Mark Watney that really makes the story come vitally and indelibly alive.
And I can guarantee that after reading The Martian, you’ll never look at Mars the same again. Not for what it might be, but for what it really is.
~ Sharon Browning