Wednesday, February 04, 2015

[Books] Book Look: The Martian, by Andy Wier

I have spent most of the years of my life with at least one foot in fairly nerdish cultural circles. And since nerds tend to read sci-fi, I have often been recommended science fiction books to read, almost all of which have left me cold. Most I do not finish. I have been told that is because I have almost exclusively been recommended what is called Hard Sci-Fi. Hard sci-fi books focus on ideas and technology. Commonly these stories are formulated along the lines of "What would happen if...?" and the consequences of the ideas and/or technology is the topic of the book. Short shrift is given to character arcs and dialogue and stylistic concerns and such.
There is often action but little character development besides the drawing of a quick cliche and a boatload of expository dialog.

So imagine my surprise when I found The Martian, by Andy Weir, to be a real page turner. A mission to Mars runs into trouble and has to be aborted early, leaving astronaut Mark Watney presumed dead, but actually stranded on the planet with nothing but the leftover mission equipment to use for his survival. He must find a way to send a message to Earth so they know he's alive. An even if he does, it will be years before he can be rescued so he will have to survive by his skills (he is both an engineer and a botanist) and his wits on a planet without food, water, or breathable air.

The reason this is compelling is not simply the idea that it's possible to do this. (Of course it's possible in the circumstances constructed in the book. It wouldn't be much of a story if the guy died after the air in his spacesuit ran out.) It is the sketching of the sort of character it would take to get through this, even when it is theoretically possible. First the guy is a full-on engineer, by which I mean he is totally dedicated to problem solving given the constraints. He does not spend a second bemoaning his situation or fretting over his fate. He simply prioritizes his needs: 1. Air, 2. Water; 3. Heat and Shelter, 4. Food, 5. Communication. One problem at a time. Just put the blinders on and keep going. I cannot overemphasize how refreshing it is to see such a character celebrated in a world that seems to exist only for the expression and glorification of personal feelings.

Second, and almost as important, is the portray of Watney's ironic sense of humor and appreciation of the absurd. I can't imagine how anyone can get through normal life without those things, never mind survive on Mars. I suspect that once you have managed to build yourself a settled relatively safe routine for survival, as Watney does during the first portion of the book, only to have a freak accident blow up your habitat and kill all your food, a certain wry appreciation of the the dark soul of comedy is about the only thing that keeps your from losing your mind, never mind getting back to the work of survival.

Should you read The Martian? Sure. It's a great adventure story. Robinson Crusoe in space. It's well paced, and quite funny in parts. There are a couple of red flags, though. One is that the shifting narrative devices can be jarring. We have first person in Watney's log, third person point-of-view commentary back on Earth, aboard the spaceship you might either first or third, and even a bit of third person omniscient toward the end. Also the technical details of the repairs can get a little long in the tooth. But even though you know from the tone of the book that you can count on a happy ending, the suspense builds very well. Perhaps most importantly, this is very positive book: positive about human will, postive about people in general. That too, is a refreshing take in our increasingly negative popular culture.

Tangent: Originally, Weir simply posted this book chapter by chapter on his website in 2011. His fans pressured him to put it on Kindle, which he did for 99 cents. It sold so well that Crown publishing bought the rights for six-figures (and upped the price to $5.99, still a bargain), and 20th Century Fox has a movie lined up to be directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. That's a real life happy ending right there.