Monday, September 14, 2015

Book Report: The Martian

If you joined the Quirky Canuck Book Club then you must have been reading The Martian these last two weeks. You MUST HAVE BEEN.

Andy Weir had been publishing his writing on his blog for a number of years before finally self-publishing his novel The Martian on Kindle, where it sky rocketed to the top of Amazon's Sci-Fi charts. The rights were then purchased and the book was released in 2014.

Holy shit, I absolutely LOVE hearing about that happening, because as someone who is too lazy to submit manuscripts to publishers, this scenario is the dream; hoping my self-published nonsense will just become popular somehow, without all that nasty rejection.

So, in The Martian,  Mark Watney (astronaut, botanist, and mechanical engineer, what a resumé!) is stranded on Mars when his crew emergency evacuates and leaves him behind during a storm. Don't judge them; it was a safe assumption that he was dead meat. This isn't a spoiler, by the way. It happens right off the bat and is the basis for the whole book, so essentially reading the dust jacket would spoil this for you.

Mark survives the storm and his abandonment, and has to devise some pretty intense and elaborate plans to survive the next four years - the time he'll have to wait for the next Mars mission to come save him.

The concept grabbed me from the beginning. I heard the book described as a cross between Castaway and Apollo 13 which is completely accurate. We have all the life-threatening spacey/technological things, as well as the elements of invention and ingenuity for survival. With an opening like this story has, it's hard not to be rooting for Watney the whole time.

The main character is written as sassy and sweary which is always a good time. Weir manages to infuse humour into a situation that is anything but funny. The author is also super smart - the son of a particle physicist (so you know it's in his blood), and he really did his homework for this novel, like researching orbital mechanics, technology, and the history of manned spaceflight. Although I'm not a scientist, I AM a science enthusiast and I have a pretty solid bullshit detector. The events of the book felt plausible. Not quite yet, but in the not-so-ridiculously-distant future, for sure.

Weir makes a crazy situation into something believable, mostly by making nothing easy for our protagonist. Watney has to get really creative, he has to think long and hard about solutions, sometimes he has to act fast, and most importantly for the believability of a survival story - a lot of shit goes wrong.

The story is addictive. As you read about setback after setback you're inclined to stay tuned to see how (and if) Watney will resolve his numerous problems. It's a classic literary technique when you think about it. *old-timey radio announcer voice* Will our hero prevail in the face of adversity? Stick around to see if he gets out of this particular can of worms! Brought to you by Ovaltine!

The only negative I can find to say about The Martian are the sometimes long bits of math and sciencey explanations. It's like listening to the Watney's thought processes as he figures things out, which is generally great for character development, but in a case like this where lots of calculations are involved, you might find your eyes darting through the paragraphs a little faster trying to reach the end of it.

Even as I criticize these moments in the narrative, I can still applaud them for making the science and the situation real to the reader.

The narration switches from Watney's perspective to NASA officials back on Earth, and again to Watney's former crew mates aboard the Hermes spacecraft on its way home. This adds some nice variety because, let's face it, the reader could get a little claustrophobic and perhaps bored if they only dealt with one person throughout the story.

Part of the reason I love reading so much is because I'm a huge fucking nerd. One aspect of being a huge fucking nerd involves a love of learning. Every book I've read, no matter the subject matter, has taught me something. Thus, I introduce a new segment to my book reports.

Things I learned about in The Martian:
  • orbital mechanics and how space missions are planned based around positions of the planets
  • logistics of food rationing and the science of growing potatoes

Reading books also inevitably expands your vocabulary.

New words I learned in The Martian:

Sojourner - this was used as the name of a Mars rover, so I looked it up. It comes from the word sojourn. The definition is perfectly appropriate for a mechanical device dropped onto a planet to see what's up.

Akimbo - This word was used to describe someone's arms and I thought "huh?" Turns out it's something I know well, but didn't know there was a word for it.

and lastly...

Heliology - noun. The science of the sun. (Someone who studies the sun would be a heliologist.)

Learn something new every book! And hey, this one's being made into a movie with Matt Damon as the lead, coming in October. I'll definitely be seeing this one on the big screen.


If you liked The Martian you might like The Martian Race, by Gregory Benford.

Benford is a legit astrophysicist and professor of physics and astronomy in California. So if you appreciate realistic science fiction, give this one a try. It's also about a mission to Mars that is rife with difficulties.


Next up on the Quirky Canuck Book Club...

by Jeff Vandermeer

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

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