Tuesday, December 29, 2015

"The Martian" by Andy Weir

Obviously this book exploded this year with the release of the Matt Damon movie (which I haven't seen). After hearing NPR gush about it for ages, I got around to reading the novel on the Kindle. It was an enjoyable read, but one I think you need to be clear about going in.

What it is:

The Martian is a fun puzzle-solving adventure. It's almost like a detailed, scientific video game being played before you. Watney is an astronaut stranded on Mars. He has no food! How will he grow some? He needs more water! How will he make it? Though the science went over my head a number of times (I wasn't going to take the time to reread carefully to try to "get" it all), you can skim those parts and still enjoy the story. You root for Watney and for the power of ingenuity and human determination. As is obvious, he's safely rescued from Mars in the end (as you always knew he would be), but it's a triumphant moment anyway.

What it isn't:

Finely crafted prose. This annoyed me the most in the beginning. Weir has a talent with science, but not with the English language. The sentences are clear, straightforward, and utilitarian. There's no beauty in syntax, no arresting imagery. It's appropriate given that the reader is supposedly reading astronaut Watney's logs (and Watney is nothing if not clear, straightforward, and utilitarian), but the English teacher in me wanted a little more craft.

Similarly, there's no philosophical approach to Watney's experiences on Mars. A friend of mine mentioned she wanted to read The Martian, saying she imagined it to be like Life of Pi. I could do nothing but laugh. While Life of Pi is a philosophical meditation on faith and relationships, The Martian is textbook problem solving. Sure, Watney is stranded on Mars, likely to die of starvation (or any of a million other things), but he almost never thinks about it in the grand sense. He doesn't wonder about the meaning of life, about his relationships, about his purpose. He does math problems to figure out how to create fuel. For example, he spends a huge portion of his time growing potatoes, only to have most of his crop die when his living area explodes. He barely seems upset. Again, from a realistic perspective, such an attitude probably makes sense. A person most likely to survive in that scenario is a person who can dedicate him or herself completely to practicalities; a person who can remain optimistic and focused even when things look their worst. But, from a reader's perspective, you sometimes want a little more thought about our place in the universe.

My last quibble with the book is not directly related to the other two, though it does tie in. Towards the end, NASA is trying to decide how to save Watney. Choice one is to try to send him more food, a plan with a somewhat low chance of success. Plan two is to send his Mars crewmates back to get him (they were enroute back to Earth)--the plan has a higher chance of success, but would endanger the five crewmates' lives too (rather than just Watney's). The unlikable NASA member insists on choice one because it would endanger the fewest lives. He's repeatedly called a coward, and a bunch of employees go behind his back to ensure they do the "brave" "right" choice--choice two. Though the debate is worthwhile, the lack of subtlety bothered me. Is it really cowardly to not want to risk more astronauts' lives? And, furthermore, how do we decide the "value" of one individual's life? NASA and many others go to extraordinary lengths and spend billions to save one man. Watney's a good guy, but we probably could have cured a disease with that kind of money. I'm not saying Watney didn't deserve to be saved, but I wish there had been more insight into the way we place value.

In the end...

A worthwhile read if you're realistic about what you're getting. And I'd like to check out the movie!

No comments:

Post a Comment