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July 3, 2015

Book Review: The Martian

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The Martian by Andy Weir

Appropriate for: high-school or older, maybe mature middle school children.

Pages: 369

Please tell me you love space stories as much as I love space stories. To me, real-life space exploration (à la NASA) is almost cooler than any sci-fi story thought up by an author behind a desk. Space is still the last frontier, the final untamed wilderness, right? That line of thinking makes astronauts into radical space cowboys. And if any character in fiction currently has the right to be a radical space cowboy, it’s Mark Watney from Andy Weir’s The Martian.

The book revolves around a simple enough plot line: Watney gets stranded on Mars after his crew evacuates, and he has to find a way to survive on the little red planet until he figures out a way to get help or communicate with Earth. (Also, this book is beautifully designed; I’m not sure who did the cover art, but it is actual art. I’d frame this book cover if I could.)

Now, I love space. I used to post up on our big leather couch back in Chicago with my dad for NASA shuttle and probe launches, counting down with the clock on CNN. My family has a background in science, and our obsession with space is well founded: it’s an area of science where our knowledge as human beings is remarkably small. The questions in space outnumber and outweigh the answers. Isn’t that cool? That’s a little bit of the reason I picked this book up as well. Because I’m a nerd. A proud nerd.

The plot is artfully arranged and written to the point where I couldn’t believe I had a hundred pages left at a certain chapter because the suspense and stakes seemed so high. The author, Weir, moves between first-person logs from Watney to third person limited observations of NASA back in Houston, narrating the stress of losing an astronaut (presumed dead) on Mars. Finally, and the part I liked the most about the point of view narration, was the omnicient, almost robotic third person POV that comes in only rarely to list specific details about parts that were installed in machines, or specific actions crew members performed prior to the evacuation. In a way, I feel like that last voice fleshes out the story even more by providing a neutral backdrop against which action can occur.

The only issue I had with this book was also a factor that will sell the book to certain readers: there’s a lot of science. Weir’s story is not that of an astronaut blindly fumbling through space trying to survive, breaking laws of physics this way and that way. Granted, I’m sure some laws of physics and thermodynamics are broken, but they’re too minor for me, a non-physicist, to notice. Weir walks the audience through every attempt at survival Watney makes, from separating particles of water into hydrogen and oxygen atoms to attempting to grow crops on dead martian soil as a food source. Once again, if you’re a well-educated scientist, this may stink of naïveté. But as a purely civilian reader, it’s also a little too high-brow to grasp at times, and can come off as boring in certain parts. By attempting to prove just how much science Watney is using to survive, Weir unconsciously separates the average reader from their identification with Watney. It’s easy to get bogged down in the science speak and forget that this guy is literally in a fight for his life (of which Weir will also remind you, but with more skill and quick, dry humor).

I loved and didn’t love how Watney responded to his situation as well. There was very little emotional examination, at least upfront. Part of this I understood: during a fight for survival, sitting down and crying isn’t a great way to maximize any potential. Granted, emotional development is still necessary to address, and this book lacked it a bit.

All in all? Even if you’re no science fanatic, if you love stories about space, Apollo 11, or anything about Mars and survival of the human spirit, pick this up. The detailed descriptions of Mars, the examination of what exactly a disappearance like this does to the psyche of the victim, his family, and his former crew, and the choices they all have to make in the wake of the accident are qualities that cut through this book’s at times heavy-handed science jargon.

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