Friday, February 28, 2014

The Martian, by Andy Weir

The Martian (2014) as a novel reads like a highly technical instruction manual.  Or like a series of complicated puzzles, all of them linked, all of them moving towards the specific goal of survival for an American astronaut stranded on Mars.  This is not a conventional science fiction novel: it is totally lacking in any elements of the fantastic, and other than the speculation that one day humans will land on and explore Mars, it is not especially speculative.  It also lacks many of the elements one would expect from a good novel—character development, exposition, narrative development.  We come to know the main character, Mark Watney, primarily as the engineer he is, possessed of knowledge about engineering and botany that enables him to do what he must in order to survive. 
Watney doesn’t ruminate much over the nature of his situation.  He may be disappointed or downcast when setbacks occur, but he recovers and quickly begins to cast about for solutions.  It’s difficult to imagine how one could function in his position, stranded on Mars, 480 days away from the hope of rescue.  It’s also difficult to believe that solutions, and the materials they require, would always be at hand, would always be successful.

The interest of this novel lies in the fact that its author, Andy Weir, is a NASA engineer who understands the intricacies of manned space missions and the science behind him.  Each solution to the problems Watney encounters are based on his knowledge.  Everything in the novel seems rooted in fact.  Though it is presented in chapters ostensibly taken from the daily logs of the astronaut, and on occasional accounts of how NASA responds to his situation, the novel’s interest comes directly from the often ingenious methods Watney devises, his fearlessness (though he really has no option to be otherwise), and on the ultimate question of his survival.  I cannot imagine reading too many novels like The Martian, but this one kept its reader engaged.

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