Friday, January 2, 2015

(Audio)book review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian

Written by: Andy Weir

Read by: R.C Bray

Published: 2011

Synopsis: Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he's sure he'll be the first man to die there.

It started with the dust storm that holed his suit and nearly killed him, and that forced his crew to leave him behind, sure he was already dead. Now he's stranded millions of miles from the nearest human being, with no way to even signal Earth that he's alive--and even if he could get word out, his food would be gone years before a rescue mission 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 get 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. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him? (Via Goodreads)


Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshipped

It hasn't been an easy road, reading this book. I had seen it around the internet for awhile but it wasn't until glowing reviews popped up on AlleyMeg and Sarah's blogs that I made a conscious decision to see what all the fuss was about. This coincided with me having a credit on Audible and deciding that yes, a book about a guy being stranded on Mars was exactly the kind of book I wanted to listen to on my bus rides and runs. But then the worst happened, I hated the audio reader. HATED him. I got a couple of minutes in and I found his voice so bland and boring that I couldn't believe that he'd be able to convincingly make the audio read as funny as everyone has said the book is. 

So I put it aside. I moved onto other physical books and audiobooks and hoped that someone would send me a copy for the ninja bookswap or for my birthday. Or if I could get my act together I'd remember to pick it up from the library after putting my name down on the wait list. None of those things happened, so I didn't get to read it. And then I found myself getting ready for a run without a podcast or audiobook to accompany me. Emily had just mentioned The Martian on her blog and I decided "screw it" I'd give it another try. At the very least the crappiness might be enough to encourage me to run faster so I can get home and turn it off. But this time I didn't hate the reader. I still don't think he was necessarily the best pick for the part, but I pushed through and the awesomeness of the book overwhelmed the mediocrity of the reader*.

The book isn't quite an epistolary novel but I think that was actually the best call Andy Weir could have made. Rather than try and frame everything within log entries, Weir combines this epistolary technique with regular narrated chapters. I think it could have been an interesting experiment to read an entire book as Mark writes the entries into his computer, especially when NASA begins to contact him and struggles to find a method of rescue. But by combining his logs with regular chapters from the perspective of several characters on Earth as well as his ex-crew who are in transit, it becomes less on a "will he/won't he" survival story and more of a scientific investigation. As much as I loved listening to Mark recount his day on Mars, I found it equally fascinating to see his daily achievements (bacteria in the soil is alive! Potatoes are beginning to grow! Still have air!) side by side with NASA's attempts to first communicate with him and then to come up with a viable rescue plan. Because this book is heavy on the science and light on the science fiction, Mark's role was pretty limited - It's not like he could rebuild a space ship from junk on the planet and high tail it back home in time for Christmas. But because the book is so heavily focused on scientific possibility it's even more amazing to see what he does manage to do. I'm pretty sure I would have just given up and curled up into a ball. Maybe that's why I'm not an astronaut (it's definitely why I'm not an astronaut).

I think a great helper in this department was the fact that I had so recently finished Chris Hadfield's book. While I am definitely no expert on the science in this novel, the way it and the astronauts were portrayed seemed to be in the same spirit as Hadfield's very realistic autobiography. This novel is, at times, brutal in depiction of life as an astronaut. If the events that instigated the novel, i.e. the dust storm which led the team to think Mark was dead, had happened on Earth there's very little chance that they would have left him behind even if he was dead. But when you're dealing with a foreign environment and space crafts which are built to carry precise weights and loads, you have to make the hard decisions. Do you bring back the body of your team member or do you have a lighter load which means less chance of mechanical issues on departure? And that's probably my favourite aspect of the novel. Saving Mark isn't as simple as turning around the space craft and heading back. There are so many tiny considerations that need to be discussed and possibilities that need to be explored. While Hollywood makes it seem like there's a rocket and a team of astronauts ready to go at any available moment, this book shows the reality of the situation. It's almost impossible to send a probe with food out immediately, let alone actual people who need to survive for the year or so it'd take to travel to Mars and back. But in direct contrast to this, people outside of this world won't see it this way. They see a man stranded on Mars and they want to know why you haven't saved him yet. Why aren't you turning the ship around or launching a new one? How could you even leave him behind in the first place? While this quandary doesn't really feature too heavily in the novel (and it's mostly framed through a NASA PR employee) it's one of the reasons I'm happy the novel wasn't a standard epistolary told through Mark's logs.

But the book isn't all potato crops and PR drama. Well, it is all potato crops and PR drama, but it's also hilarious. Who would have thought a book about a man stranded on Mars with about a 2% chance of survival would be funny? Mark might be facing death. but he's not about to be a morose bastard. He's hilariously dry about absolutely everything. Toilets, farming, music, survival - you name it and he's made a self-deprecating or droll comment about it. It's the humour at the heart of this novel that makes it stand out from the hundreds of other high concept science fiction novels and makes it approachable for people who wouldn't normally dream of reading a book like this. So if this book doesn't instantly speak to you on a personal level I recommend that you come for the humour and stay to watch fictionalised versions of the brightest people on Earth puzzle over how to save a man a gazillion miles from home.

*R.C Bray if you ever google yourself and come across this, I'm sorry. I'm sure you're a great guy and a fantastic reader but you reading this book + me = NOPE.


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