Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Martian - Andy Weir

Here's something you need to know about me. I can remember the names of every teacher I ever had in every subject I ever studied.... except for science. So hopelessly thick was I in that subject that there are only two hazy memories I hold from those classes.

I remember that there was a little tear on the bottom left hand corner of the pull-down chart of the Table of Elements (junior high) and that frogs turned spoiled-hamburger-meat gray when they've been in formaldehyde for any length of time (senior high).

Surprisingly, neither of those two things have ever proved to be of any use whatsoever in my day to day life. I have used algebra more often, frankly, although only as a conversation starter.  As in, "Ever notice how we never have to use algebra?"


I picked up the galley of The Martian by Andy Weir intending to give it to my husband to read. He enjoys sci-fi (I do not) and he'd been very patient with my bringing him, you know, real fiction to read over the past year or so. As I am wont to do, I opened the book to read the first few paragraphs, and, well. I was hooked. 

The only thing you need to know about the story is this: A manned mission to Mars is cut short by a dust storm, during which one of the crew members, Mark Watney, is presumed dead and must be left behind in order to ensure the survival of the other mission members. 

But we are six days past that event when the book opens and we are made privy to Watney's coming-to realization that he is stranded -- alive -- with just the discarded vehicles, a handful of potatoes, and the supplies and personal effects left behind in the crew's scramble to leave the red planet. 

Watney is a charming, engaging, brilliant, and downright lovable narrator, and after the first several paragraphs I had no intention of leaving him up there alone. 

Over the course of this very surprising novel we also spend some time with the rest of the crew, and with flight control, all of whom have to figure out how in the universe they can salvage, literally and figuratively, what was left on Mars. 

Yes, there is a whole lot of science in here. I'll confess that I didn't even try to pay rapt attention to all of that. I was, though, always able to understand the problems Watney was facing, and the big picture for how he came to solve them, but I was not reading this to pick apart the how stuff. (Those who have read it with that sort of critical eye agree that he got all this excruciatingly correct.)

In a recent interview with NPR's Science Friday's Ira Flatow, Weir characterized his novel as hard sci-fi, a genre which employs available science and technology -- albeit sometimes perfected just a tetch -- to create a plausible story.  Weir, a computer programmer and self-identifying space nerd, could surely have been expected to deliver all the technical goodies, but that he also delivered a remarkably compelling human story as well has left me quite bowled over. 

And just a bit sorry that I didn't pay more attention in all those science classes.....

The Martian
Crown Publishers
February 2014

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