Sunday, March 23, 2014

Left Behind

The Martian
by Andy Weir

4 out of 5 Martian potatoes

Scientists and David Bowie have long wondered if there is life on Mars. There is, but he isn’t very happy about it. And he probably won’t be alive for long.

A six-person crew made the third manned landing mission on the red planet, but a severe wind storm forces them to leave just a few days after their arrival rather than staying for the planned month. During the emergency evacuation one of them is killed in a freak accident. The remaining crew members reluctantly haul ass back to Earth leaving their fallen comrade behind. 

The problem is that Mark Watney isn’t dead.

Now stranded on Mars with no communications to let anyone know he’s still alive, Watney faces a grim reality. The oxygen and water reclamation systems can provide enough of both those substances to support him as long as they keep working, but his habitat and equipment were only designed for a thirty day stay. Even worse, his food supply is limited to the rations left behind by the crew. Even if he can find a way to let NASA know he’s alive, physics tells him that a rescue mission won’t be able to get there before he starves to death.

That’s when most of us would just give up and cry. But Watney is an astronaut, one of those mutants who can calmly say, “Houston, we have a problem.” right after their goddamn spaceship explodes halfway to the moon. So after quickly adjusting to the situation, Mark gets to work. Can his knowledge of botany and engineering along with a knack for improvising solutions and a helluva lot of duct tape help him survive long enough to get home?

I’m a space geek who can’t get enough documentaries, books and museum visits on the subject as well as rushing to the theater for films like Apollo 13 and Gravity so this story was obviously right in my sweet spot. Still, I think it’d have broad appeal beyond the rocket fans because of the everyman quality of Watney and general sympathy for his plight as a straight up survival story. 

It helps that the character has a playful personality despite the grim circumstances. A good portion of the book is done as his first person log entries with the idea that he thinks he’s making a record to be found long after his death, but rather give in to self-pity or despair, Mark cracks jokes.

These log entries show a sense of goofy humor that initially make you think that NASA standards must have slipped badly, but behind that you see that Mark is bringing an impressive problem solving intellect and understanding of science to his situation. He may make smart-ass comments about how he’ll be the first person to die on Mars, but after a short initial declaration of his impending doom, it’s obvious that he has no intention of going gently into the Martian night.

Despite his upbeat persona, Weir does a nice job of subtly showing us how the time alone on Mars begins to take a toll on Mark by letting him occasionally get serious or reveal how some of the things about his circumstances begin to wear him down. This is much more effective than long angst filled speeches about being the only living soul on an entire planet.

Another part of the appeal is that this is a fight against the calendar, not the clock. After his initial accident, Watney knows he won’t die in an hour, the next day or even the next month. (Assuming nothing goes terribly wrong.) But he’s run the numbers, and the math doesn’t lie. He will die eventually unless he changes the situation drastically. That gives the whole thing a deliberate but tense pacing that also allows for thinking and analyzing the situations Mark finds himself in.

Which brings me to another point I loved. The lack of denial. There is no bullshitting on Mark’s part. He can’t afford it. Every calorie counts and within a day or two of being stranded he’s rationing his food despite having enough to last him for months and working on how he can create more.

However, Mark isn’t perfect, and he’s well aware of this. Despite his careful planning and preparations as he modifies things to get what he needs, he knows that he’s working without a net and dreads the inevitable screw-ups while hoping that they won’t kill him. When he does make a mistake, it seems like the kind of forehead-slapping stupid error the smartest person could make by simply overlooking the obvious. Only in this case any slip-up could kill him. 

I only had a couple of minor complaints. This isn’t a spoiler about the ending, but it does reveal a major plot point so read at your own risk.......[I found the shift from Mark’s first person logs to Earth jarring at first and found myself wishing that the entire book had been done from his point of view. That could have been done, but there is some pretty good stuff that comes out of NASA realizing that Mark is alive and what they go through to try and save him. By the end of the book, I decided that getting the Earth side of the story was good, but I’m still left wondering of how it would have played if told only from Mark’s point of view.]

This second one does contain spoilers that give up the ending so skip the next two paragraphs unless you’ve already read it or just don’t care........[ I liked the idea that Mark’s crew returns for him, and there’s a lot of very good tense stuff there. However, I didn’t care for the way that Mark is essentially just a helpless passenger once they launch the escape rocket off Mars. After the entire book being about him surviving by his own wits and will, letting him just be rescued in the last phase was kind of disappointing although he does come up with an idea that ends up being the spark to save him. I guess an argument could be made that Weir was trying to allow the crew to redeem themselves for abandoning him and that it required the effort of thousands of people to put him in that position, but I still wish Mark could have saved himself right to the very end.

Also, it seemed odd that we got no kind of scene between Mark and Commander Lewis after he was saved. Her guilt over leaving him becomes a major motivational plot point so it’s weird that we didn’t get to see the two of them together before it wrapped up.]

Any complaints are minor bitchery that didn’t make me think less of the book overall. This is a smart sci-fi story, but there are a lot of smart sci-fi stories. What sets this one apart is its likable main character and the clever way he goes about trying to save his own life while being entertaining in the process.

Also posted on Goodreads.

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