Monday, September 14, 2015

Book Review: The Martian

In conversation last week I realised that I've already sailed past my target of reading 20 books a year. In some ways thats not a challenging target, because I've always been a voracious and eclectic reader, but its hard to find the time these days - or rather reading time has to fight with everything else and often ends up losing. But it's only early September, and I've read 22 books so far this, even managing to plunge back to the Science Fiction genre; my first and greatest literary love that I've been neglecting as I've been distracted by "other genres". I hope it'll forgive me. At the far end of the Space Operatics I've been reading over the summer, there is the "Engineering in Space" genre, set tomorrow, with tomorrow's tech, and here I find The Martian, Andy Weir's self-published, and soon to be a major motion picture-ed, tale of isolation and survival on the edge of manned exploration. 

Mark Watney is one of the 6 man crew of Ares 3, the latest of 5 manned missions to Mars, when a heavy Martian storm forces the mission to abort. During the evacuation he is struck by debris, blown off into the storm, and, with his suit telemetry reading vital signs flat, the rest of the crew are forced to abandon him, or share his fate. The only problem is, he's not actually dead. Coming around, Mark is confronted with the realisation he is more alone than any human has ever been, with limited resources, no communication, and very few options. From this unpromising setup, the book charts Mark's determination to survive against the odds. 

The book is told mostly through Marks' journal, which makes his dry sense of humour a central selling point of a novel that hinges on engineering specs and orbital mechanics. Mark is the human voice in the wilderness, and he's likable, warm and generally just fun to read. Other sections of the book give us a more conventionally-written insight into NASA Mission Control and the rest of the crew of Ares 3, now heading inexorably away from Mars and their stranded crewmate. The cast gradually fills out as the book goes through (and contact is reestablished, although I don't want to say too much because spoilers) but Mark is always the centre, as he should be. 

The dramatic tension; the enemy, if you like, is always the reality of Mark's situation. At critical moments, the narrative isn't afraid to drill into fine details of say, a single bolt, to make clear what is happening and why, as something goes wrong. A lot goes wrong - The Martian covers a lot of ground and has a solid, procedural feel at times - and it's always cleanly presented. Even the details of how the Ares program works, a fantasically complex endevour as you might expect, is well presented with fine detail introduced only when the story demands it. 

As you can probably tell, I loved The Martian. I read it through in about a week, and I totally recommend it without reservation. I even found myself getting emotional at the final moments. It's a great tribute not just to the dangers of manned spaceflight but also a book about the strength of the human spirit, about what can be acheived both individually and as people pulling together. It's just fantastic, and well worth the time spent with it.