Sunday, October 25, 2015

What I'm Reading: The Martian

I admit I was a bit skeptical when someone loaned me The Martian recently and told me I should read it. The Martian? That new movie with Matt Damon? Isn't that an airplane book, not real literature? (Yes, despite my devotion to comics and genre science fiction, I am quite a snob in certain respects.) Well, I did read it, and am glad I did so, despite some reservations with the book.

The book that The Martian most reminds me of is The Da Vinci Code, although if that's unflattering, let me say I consider The Martian far more worthwhile. But what I mean by the comparison, is that The Martian relentlessly pushes its plot forward, leading to a sort of page-turning mania in the reader, and The Da Vinci Code is the only recent book I could think of that had this quality to such an extent. I don't read a lot of potboilers though, so forgive me if there's a more recent book I should be thinking of instead.

Yet, I think The Martian has far more value, because its tale of astronaut Mark Watney, stranded on Mars and forced to survive for years until a rescue mission can be mounted, is based in hard science, which Watney (and through him, author Andy Weir) shares with us in abundance. The Da Vinci Code, on the other hand, gave the impression of being based in fact but was actually mumbo-jumbo and conspiracy theory that no actual archeologists subscribe to. Watney's story, though, could practically be used as a manual, were any unfortunate astronaut actually to fall victim to a similar scenario.

But this propulsion of the plot also creates what I consider the book's greatest weakness: its lack of sensory detail, of scenery-setting and place-building, of any sort of evocation of the wonder of a distant planet. The book almost gets away with it, as its protagonist, who narrates much of the story via his mission journal, is a hard-headed engineer who probably would take little notice of the more poetic aspects of his situation. Yet, there's such a startling lack of place description, even as the book at a couple points goes into some detail on the 70s TV sitcoms he watches to pass the time, that Watney comes across as unbelievably superficial. A mechanical engineer, a botanist, with a great sense of humor and a genius for survival--but perhaps the dullest space explorer ever. Only his situation keeps us interested.

I've read plenty of Arthur C. Clarke in my life, whose stories were always grounded in hard science and who often emphasized plot and concept at the cost of characterization, Yet Clarke certainly would not have passed up the chance to convey to the reader the awesomeness of dwelling on a red planet with two moons. What do sunsets look like on Mars? What does the soil smell like? How about Watney's habitat? He tells us it smells bad, as he's reusing his own feces to fertilize his garden. But he doesn't make us feel it.

Still, I think I can recommend this book to anyone who would enjoy a page-turning science-fiction adventure solidly grounded in actual science and set in the near future. A reader can expect to be entertained and to learn a little, even if the book doesn't stick with you for more then ten minutes after you're done reading. This is Andy Weir's first effort at a novel, and before his next one, I hope he reads some Arthur C. Clarke, some Ray Bradbury, some Robert Heinlein, so he can see how to balance the science with the human.

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