Friday, October 2, 2015

Review: The Martian (The Book)

So yesterday I said, and I quote, "...I can proudly say I've never seen all of Ernest Scared Stupid."   This has absolutely no relevance to today's topic, but I just wanted to point that out again.

What I also said was that today we would "explore what I'd probably describe as my greatest fear of all."

What does that have to do with Alan Weir's magnificent book The Martian?  They both involve being alone.

The Martian is that movie coming out this weekend with Matt Damon.  It's the one he hopes is going to let him win the Golden Tomato award from

However, it's also a book written by Andy Weir, a science nerd (self-proclaimed) who got hired to work for a national laboratory when he was fifteen years old as a computer programmer.  He originally posted all of the chapters of his book online, then released it onto Amazon, then was flabbergasted when it exploded in popularity and the world required him to put out an actual paper version.

It's kind of the 50 Shades Of Grey of science fiction, except it doesn't make me want to stab myself in the brain when I think about it and it's possibly one of the most scientifically accurate fiction stories about space that's ever made it big.  See, word spread through scientific communities about this guy who was sharing math and science while telling this story of a man attempting to survive on an alien world, and other scientists came along, read it, and started checking Andy Weir's work.  If they found a flaw in a formula, they'd contact him and let him know.

Now, granted, there is one rather major scientific flaw in the film, but without it the plot doesn't happen.  At all.  So, it's that brief suspension of disbelief that allows for the rest of the book to work perfectly.

At its heart, The Martian is a survival story, one that you could put alongside stories like Robinson Crusoe, Cast Away, and Apollo 13.  I was going to say it was essentially Robinson Crusoe On Mars but apparently that already exists.  A man struggles in a hostile area to survive, alone save for the meager trappings of civilization he manages to scrounge up and make use of.  However, instead of scraps of sailcloth and planks of wood, we have the remains of a scientific expedition to a planet that has no air or food.

The story is told primarily through video and audio diaries that the lead character, Mark Watney, leaves to tell his story.  He winds up stranded on Mars when a massive windstorm sweeps through his base's camp, forcing the entire mission to be scrapped and all the astronauts gather to evacuate.  Mark gets clipped by a satellite dish and separated in the growing sandstorm from the others, and they're forced to leave him behind when he's feared dead.  We get occasional glimpses into life back on Earth and on the spaceship that was forced to leave Watney behind, but everything is primarily from Watney's point of view.

Andy Weir made Mark Watney an extremely likable person, able to keep himself sane with humor and the relics of the lives of his (now separated) crew.  Whether it's his commander's extensive disco music collection or a massive collection of classic 70's sitcoms, Mark finds ways to keep a touch of Earth with him, but of course his biggest problems are how to grow food in soil not meant to carry life, keep his air supply going long enough to survive rescue, and of course contacting Earth to figure out how he can be saved.

So what does this have to do with fear?  A major theme through the book is Mark Watney's fear of dying in a place clearly not designed for man to live on.  Being separated so far from his family, friends, and coworkers, Mark has to constantly push away the thought that he could easily die on Mars and his body would likely never be found.  He'd just be buried in the sand, forever lost to the rest of humanity.

I, personally, find the idea of being alone and abandoned terrifying.  On long road trips it's the thing constantly worrying the back of my head, that I would get stranded somewhere without any means of contacting anybody.  There's the fear that I'd alienate all of my friends and loved ones, and that if something happened to me, nobody would ever notice until it was much, much too late.

It's this fear I have that made me connect so well with this book.  Mark Watney's humor and attempts to survive, combined with his scientific explanations of how he managed to do what he did, worked for me, and I was able to project myself into the story.  I was constantly thinking about if I could manage any of the things Mark Watney manages, and I'll admit pretty freely I think I would have been left lacking in so many ways.  The fear was still there, the idea that at any moment something could break, go wrong, or be miscalculated, and during some of the more tense moments in the book I realized I was gripping the pages tightly.  It's a strange thing to have a survival/comedy story reach me on a more primal level than any "horror" story I've ever read.  The simple fear of something going wrong and a fictional character being truly alone had me more paralyzed with fear at times than any supernatural creature or mentally unbalanced serial killer ever could.

I recommend this book to everybody.  If you like science, this is your book.  If you like humor, this is your book.  If you like space, nail-biting tension, engineering, botany lessons, mature adult relationships, disco and corny sitcoms, and the stark terror of being alone in a place that honestly doesn't care if you're there or not, it's not going to do you any favors and try to help you survive....then this is your book.

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