Tuesday 29 July 2014

The Martian by Andy Weir

Andy Weir sure puts the 'science' into science fiction with his first book, The Martian. Hooking you in from the page one, the Martian of the title is quickly revealed as astronaut Mark Watney, who six days into a mission to Mars with five other astronauts, finds himself abandoned by his crew-mates and believed dead.
    While the rest of the team escape what could have been a disastrous storm, Watney wakes up and begins the difficult task of saving himself in the short-term and making plans for his long-term survival. Another Mars mission is scheduled in four years' time and he's determined to be ready for it.
    It is lucky that Mark is a trained botanist and that NASA thought that the crew would like some real potatoes to enjoy for Thanksgiving. Using a mixture of Mars dust, faecal matter and lots of water - he figures out a way to produce this in abundance - plus the potatoes, Mark builds a mini market garden inside the Hab, the dome that was to house him and his colleagues for a month.
    The science gets a lot more complicated than that as he figures out how to contact NASA to let them know he is alive - though a smart young scientist had spotted activity already when watching some satellite images. He also has to figure out how to get himself several hundred kilometres from the Hab to the site of the next mission using an exploration vehicle which has been designed for short trips only. There are lots of technical details which I did my best to keep up with, and for someone who doesn't really know a lot about chemistry and physics (I could kind of keep up with the botany), it made for oddly exhilarating reading.
    But Weir doesn't just throw a lot of science at the reader. He knows about how to keep the plot boiling along as Watney encounters numerous setbacks and NASA breaks rules and argues about what to do and somehow his old crew-mates come on board the story as well. And you can imagine how they must be feeling.
    Though the star of the show is really Mark. He is a terrific character: funny as well as clever, determined and vigorous. There are plenty of comic touches, including the seventies music and old tv series that Captain Lewis thought to bring along and which Mark resorts to for the sake of something to break the tedium of his aloneness.
    The overall effect of The Martian is a tribute to human inventiveness and the will of people all over the world to help out someone in trouble. It is also a bit like watching a cross between Kerbil Space Programme and Mythbusters. Not many writers could pull off a book like this and make it work. And it's not surprising that Ridley Scott has plans to turn the novel into a movie starring Matt Damon. I can't wait!

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