I started reading The Martian, and like Mark Watney on Mars, was stuck in the book till I could finish it. It has been a while since I picked up a book I could not put down, and even longer since I read a decent science fiction story.
When I was a young boy, I was gifted a hardbound book called “Space Stories for Boys.” This launched me into the word of classic science fiction. Over the next couple of decades, I have collected and read, from old book stalls, pavement shops, second-hand places mostly, more than my fair share of classic science fiction. During this time, I’ve come to have a certain taste in it – what appeals to me is a curious mix of kitsch and drama, set in improbable and dramatic surroundings.
Something Arthur C Clarke said about what true science fiction is stuck with me. The test of whether something was a true science fiction story is to see if the science part of it was integral to the story. If you took away the science part and the story still worked, it was not true science fiction – the science is merely a prop. This has become a touchstone for how I rate a science fiction work, and in most cases, I’ve found that the real science fiction stories have worked for me. Of course, I was quite the omnivore and consumed all kinds of science fiction, good, bad and ugly.
Fellow sci-fi fan and ubergeek Suresh introduced me to several authors – Douglas Adams being one of the most influential. So it was no surprise that he told me about the Martian, and urged me to “read it immediately.” I took his advice, and was blown away.
The story is quite straightforward – here’s the blurb from Andy Weir’s website:
Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.
Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.
After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.
Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.
But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?
Once you get into it though, it’s more of a science thriller than anything else. The writing is taut and gripping. Most of the narrative is in the first person, in the form of the log maintained by the protagonist. This makes us live through the story, and the author is skilful enough to actually immerse us. I was dusting off red Martian dust whenever I turned away from the book!
One thing that stands out in the book is that there is no advanced “magic“ science that is de rigeuer in most science fiction works set in the future. Mark Watney has today’s technologies and science with him, and nothing more. Everything he does is scientifically possible today, and everything is explained in plain-speak to us lay folk.
The science is another place where Andy Weir excels – there is enough detail for the geek, yet, it is not so much that a non-science person will be put off by it. There are no sections that force you to skim over – indeed, even the science bits are filled with suspense as the protagonist works out how to do something and then goes about making it happen.
The characterization is quite black and white – every character has clear motivations and acts in accordance with them. This, however, contributes rather than detracts from the temperament of the narrative. If anything, it amplifies the experience of the core of the story.
This is a seriously impressive debut, and I cannot wait for Any Weir’s next work.
More information on Andy Weir’s website.
Buy the book on Amazon – hardback, paperback or on Kindle.