Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Book Review - The Martian

I tend to stay away from hard Science Fiction, which is defined as fiction that’s limited by the technology that we have or can prove at this point in time, and as such can be worked into the realm of science fact.  It’s not that I’m in love with ray guns and warp drives, it’s that I tend to read for the thrill of the unknown, and when something isn’t an unknown, it’s not quite so thrilling.

But, in the interest of coming out of the comfort zone, I picked up a copy of the Martian, mainly for the opening line on the preview, which reads…

“I’m pretty much f*****”

Sometimes all you need is a good tagline…

It’s the story of the first manned expedition to Mars, and an accident that befalls the mission when the weather conditions prove to be more severe than expected.  One of the crew, Mark Watney, is left behind on the planet, presumed dead following being separated from the others in a massive storm.

Except he’s not dead.

What follows is the explanation of how he finds himself alone on Mars with supplies for six people for 31 days, needing to make them last for at least four years so that mission control might be able to send a team back to rescue him.  Note that word, explanation, because there’s a lot of that going on in this book, not to be confused with exposition, and that for me is the cornerstone of Hard science fiction, the proof that the things going on in the book can be done.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no ability in the scientific disciplines that are used in the book, so I can’t speak for the veracity of the equations or the botanical conundrums that are described, but a whole bunch of people who do have that knowledge have spoken praise of the accuracy, so that’s good enough for me.

It would have been easy to imagine a scenario where nothing goes wrong and science wins the day, but Andy Weir hasn’t taken the easy way out on this, throwing problem after problem against Watney.  Each time coming up with an accurate scientific solution for how Watney could make a success out of it, from explosions within the base to miscalculations of minute degrees that make a massive difference, everything is about the science, how it can save us if done right, destroy us if done wrong.

Given that the book is pretty much one man and his thoughts on the surface, there’s very little in the way of dialogue in the book, and as a result, a lot of what’s going on is only communicated through the logs of Mark Watney, and therein lies the problem for me. The problem with communicating in Logs is that everything is past tense, you know he got through it because there’s the log to show how he did it, and while there’s nothing wrong with writing in past tense, it loses some of the tension that present tense would bring with it.  It’s not till the end of the book when the action is happening in real time that we get some idea of the man that we’ve been reading about and not just the notes that he kept on what had happened. Like any journal, it’ll tell you what happened, but it won’t put the emotion of the moment on the page.  There are a few moments of live action, and those moments were well done, giving some much needed life to Watney, but not as many as I felt there should have been.  A lot of the action would have been much better in real time rather than reading about it later.

Then there’s the character of Mark Watney, who is intelligent, resourceful, and has the exact mindset and skillset to survive on the planet.  I understand that leaving the medical technician or comms specialist on the planet would have had them dead after the food ran out and that doesn’t make for a good story, but Watney is exceptional in all the things he needs to be, and he does have luck on his side in a number of places.  I found myself not fearing for Watney, because his assured view is that science can and will overcome everything, a viewpoint that he proves on a number of occasions, but given that science is his ally, there was a lack of tension in the book (for me) as a result. 

It’s heavy going in places where the science is going on, particularly when you don’t really understand if what he’s saying is accurate or applied phlebotinum, but it’s an enjoyable read, worth getting through the grinding bits for the ending, and certainly the first Hard science fiction novel that I’ve read that I enjoyed.

One thing I would say is that it’s getting made into a film, and I’ve seen the trailer, from which the line, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this…” leads me to believe that Hollywood have their claws into it to make it less like the novel and more like a cheerful version of Interstellar.

 In truth, as much as I like things happening in real time, I believe the novel was how this story was meant to be told, and I would urge everyone to read the book before seeing the film.

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