Saturday, November 21, 2015

Knowledge Is Power: a Review of Andy Weir's "The Martian"

    Space, the boring frontier ...
    No, I'm kidding. Space is immensely interesting. And dangerous, which is what makes it such an exciting environment for a thriller. Well at least for a space geek like me, but what about the mainstream? Where is America's interest in space exploration now and what would it take to invigorate it? Well Andy Weir gives us one nightmarish example of a fictional situation that could turn the attention of everyone to NASA and to space.
    In his novel "The Martian" astronaut Mark Watney is stranded alone on the planet Mars after a manned exploration mission is abandoned due to a dangerous dust storm. During their evacuation strong winds blow a satellite dish into Watney’s side, damaging his space suit and convincing his team that he had met his demise on the martian surface. But he survives and reaches the safety of the NASA Habitat to begin his adventure of survival, beginning with a log entry of "I'm pretty much fucked ..."
Watney's Path on Mars

    And that's the avenue the novel uses, reading as a collection of Mark Watney's recovered log entries. It gives the book a cool "found footage" feel I've never experienced in a novel before. Spoiler alert, eventually the narrative turns to a more traditional third person writing to tell the tale of the events back on Earth as NASA discovers Watney's still alive. It gives the reader a nice change of pace to the reading. Just when you're starting to find the log reading a little dull, the book brings you into the drama back at earth. There's also some nice back story breaks on the building and science behind NASA's equipment, just in time to understand how and why it breaks.
    The meat of the novel though comes in the entertaining character of Mark Watney. Watney's delivery is edgy and hilarious in a nerdy kind of way. Maybe it helps being a nerd myself to catch all the references to Dungeon and Dragons, 70's sitcoms, and comic book character Iron Man. It's Watney's geeky enthusiasm for engineering and science that gives the novel a tone of adventure and fun that lessons the dullness of scientific detail. It reminded me of reading a Michael Crichton novel. Superb, real feeling dialogue with nuggets of science sprinkled in between. And if the novel teaches the reader anything it's that knowledge is power. And while I'm no astronaut, the novel comes off as well researched and accurate. My favorite science lesson moment in the book is when Watney decides to make his own water out of his oxygen tanks and the Hydrogen from the MAV's rocket fuel. It's basic chemistry, but still being accustomed to a society where everything is pre-made and canned it was a kick of inspiration to think, "wait you can MAKE WATER!".
Author Andy Weir

    The enthusiasm, humor, and engineer's attitude of Mark Watney I'm suspicious is a bullhorn for the genuine personality of author Andy Weir. Weir’s do-it-yourself attitude can be seen just in the publication of the novel. Weir independently published The Martian in 2011 as a free download off his personal website. As it gained Internet popularity, readers requested a Kindle version to be released. Weir complied, giving the book the most modest pricing Kindle would allow, 99 cents. It became a bestseller, gaining the attention of publishers and the movie industry. The first set of rights were sold for an audiobook version by Podium Publishing in 2013, followed by the hardback printing by Crown Publishing in 2014 and then the current feature film released by 20th Century Fox in 2015. Not bad for a first novel!
    As of this writing the movie version has earned 207 million dollars, while the paperback novel is second on the New York Times Bestseller list. So I take back my earlier assumption, it look’s like america does still have interest in space. Well, at least in fiction we do and why wouldn’t we with the quality of science fiction making a comeback with books like "The Martian". Speaking of which … STAR WARS!!!! Woo hoo!! Who’s excited? This guy.

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