>> Tuesday, July 15, 2014
I'm stranded on Mars.
I have no way to communicate with Earth.
I'm in a Habitat designed to last 31 days.
If the Oxygenator breaks down, I'll suffocate. If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I'll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I'll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I'll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah. I'm screwed.
Mark Watney is stuck on Mars. His mission was supposed to last only about a month, but after only a few days he and his team were caught by a particularly vicious dust storm, which risked tipping over and breaking their exit vehicle. And as if aborting the mission wasn't bad enough, disaster struck during the evacuation, when Mark was struck by flying debris. For very good reasons, his teammates thought he was dead. After wasting some precious time searching for him, they had to leave anyway. And then Mark woke up, alone in Mars.
Through log entries, the book follows Mark as he fights to stay alive, searching for creative solutions in a situation where fatal disaster lurks in every corner. We also follow the people working on Earth in mission control and his former crew, as they all do whatever they can to bring him back.
The Martian is fantastic. It's an incredibly tense and gripping story. I must say, I was afraid it wasn't going to be so at first. I wasn't particularly enthralled for the first few chapters, where it's basically Mark working his way through a number of different problems, in quite a lot of technical detail. It was all interesting enough, in its own way, but lacking narrative drive. Well, if you do decide to try this, do stick with it through the first bit, because once you get to the first chapter set in Earth, things really get going, and how!
It's fascinating to see all the characters, but most of all Mark, working through the huge number of problems Mark's situation brings up. It all boils down to how Mark can be kept alive long enough to be rescued, but there are so many aspects to this, and that's not even considering what he might need to do if things go wrong. Which they do, in all sorts of ways. I loved seeing the sort of lateral thinking this required. There was a fair bit of technical detail here, all of which made sense to me, but then again, I'm not an expert. I did think the detail was sometimes a bit too much, but that might be because I was listening to the audiobook, and so listening to every word (including, at one point, to a readout of a computer log as it went through a reboot procedure). You can probably sort of glance quickly over this sort of thing when you're looking at the text.
So that was great, but what really made the book for me were the characters, especially Mark. He's a fabulous narrator. As I mentioned earlier, we get his point of view through log entries. That may not sound too promising, but his personality and humour really shine through, as does his fear when things aren't looking good. But mostly, it's the humour. Mark is a bit of a clown (or rather, as the mission psychologists would put it, he's the type of guy whose reaction to extreme stress is to crack jokes), and this makes it really entertaining to be in his point of view.
I loved the other characters as well. It's interesting, because we only see them at work and the way they react to the developments in Mars is really the only aspect of their personality we're witness to. And yet I got a really good sense of who all these people were. I particularly loved Mark's crewmates and the team dynamics, and really appreciated that the mission commander was female and that wasn't an issue at all.
The one thing I thought was lacking in The Martian was any but the shallowest discussion of the ethics of spending that much money on saving one particular man. It's brought up very briefly and discounted with what I thought was a bit of a sleight of hand (and a copout, I'm afraid). There's a feeling that because a life is at stake, it's just not right to even consider the costs. Well, I'm quite impatient with that sort of stance. It's a cop-out. Maybe it's because I work in health economics and public policy and I'm therefore more comfortable than most with thinking about people's lives and health in the context of finite resources, combined with an almost infinite number of options to use those resources. I would probably have been a villain in this book, going "Hang on, can we think about this?"
Still, I finished this with a happy sigh.
MY GRADE: A very solid B+.
AUDIOBOOK NOTES: The reader is really, really good. I was, however, not completely convinced by the decision to have him read the entire text. Mark's logs are, obviously, in the first person, so it's quite disconcerting to have the voice which in my head is Mark, reading the other third person sections, whether telling what's going on on Earth or giving us an omniscient update of what's going on with bits of equipment.