Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Martian

Andy Weir’s The Martian is a science fiction novel for readers who take the “science” in science fiction seriously.  Weir, according to his author blurb, is a software engineer well versed in “subjects like relativistic physics, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned space flight,” and he puts it all to good use in this, his debut novel.  That’s the good news.

But now for the bad news: readers preferring a lighter dose of the science in science fiction are likely to find that for them The Martian is a tediously slow read.  The bulk of the novel’s action takes place on Mars, where astronaut Mark Watney must outsmart every surprise the red planet has in store for him if he is going to live long enough to be rescued when the next manned mission arrives there.   And since there is no one on Mars for Watney to interact with, the action (what there is of it) comes largely from the depths of the astronaut’s mind and the detailed diary that he is writing for the record.  That diary is largely filled by the introduction of one problem after another, followed by all of the math and science needed to find the solutions that will allow Watney to live another day.  That is well and good for the reader with an engineering background – or even for wannabe mechanical engineers – but it becomes a bit repetitive for the rest of us.

At least back in Houston, where much of the real rescue plan is being designed, Weir does not burden the reader with much of the math or science involved in the process, so things move along noticeably quicker in those portions of the story.  Unfortunately, those sections total only about a third of the book (estimate only), so as I got farther into The Martin, I found myself yearning to get back to Houston every time my reading stalled in the middle of one of those long diary sections.

Author Andy Weir
All that said, The Martian is an entertaining and enlightening story about the hazards of interplanetary exploration, a cautionary tale of sorts, but one that celebrates the problem solving expertise of those in charge of the program.  Mark Watney is a character whose self-deprecating wit and personality make him instantly likable, and there is never a moment in the book that the reader will not be rooting whole-heartedly for his rescue.  One or two of the other characters are relatively stereotypical, and the female character in charge of PR for NASA in Houston is borderline ludicrous in both nature and in behavior – and, more seriously, unbelievable.

Bottom Line:  Despite a false note here and there, and the overdose of math lessons, there is a lot to like about The Martian.  It is an inspirational story about what America’s space program could be again one day…if, by then, we have not already allowed the Russians and the Chinese to take ownership of outer space.

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