The Martian by Andy Weir

orange cover with space-suited astronautThe Martian by Andy Weir, (paperback 2011) and now a movie starring Matt Damon. Since I am coming late to this book, you all probably know the whole story behind it, with him writing it on the web and being discovered and input from others on some technical stuff, etc. so it has a fun backstory too.

I really enjoyed it — even though I expected not to because I generally don’t care for the monologue type dramas. This one was relieved, thankfully, by the externals that were brought in. But it still had me wondering why, when it was just the usual series of man gets in bad situation, FORTUNATELY just happens to have two skill sets needed, botany to grow food and engineering to fix things, and so he proceeds to fix the problems. But since according to traditional storytelling, nothing can go completely smoothly, there must be ”
obstacles to overcome to be truly heroic. The protagonists must always be thwarted in some way, though usually not of their own fault. This was fun because the author made the hero make a rookie mistake with the drill. But at the same time, I, who is the most illiterate person I know about tools, knew enough to see that problem  coming. So it did strike me that that one was a bit contrived, but hey he’s stranded on Mars, I’ll give him a break. But yeah, the author uses the injury as the story point, but it never gets referred to again.

But he just carries on lifting rocks with no apparent impediment of a stab wound; I prefer a little more realism. When a pretty boy gets beat up, he should not magically transform to an unmarked face two hours later, nor should he be able to go on to beat the bad guys up with bare hands over and over without breaking something. But that’s just me.

Oddly enough, I really enjoyed the intense details of science and math information even though it was way beyond anything I ever learned. That’s why I have said it should be used as a textbook for all ages to build curriculum around, When I think of the brilliant minds of Apollo 13 and how rare and precious that kind of thinking can be, then contrast with the people on the nightly news, the contrast is enough to make anyone with half a clue weep in despair.

Please publishers, develop a small self study companion book explaining the concepts. Pretty sure he referenced an Ancient Greek or two in the book who managed remarkable things scientific and mathematically that we still draw on today.

It would also be fun to have a few modules online for exploration with hyperlinks for various crucial concepts to explore. For example, as soon as I read “she had gone due south” my suspension of disbelief fell as I wondered, “how can they tell?” since I did not think Mars and a magnetic north pole like Earth does. And since my understanding was that it was so red because of all the iron dust, that would play havoc with compasses. I still have to look it up to grasp, and the book did address the issue briefly a little bit later, but not very satisfactorily because I am still confused on how he navigated or anyone planned to navigate with the storms etc. as developed later in the book. Making a sextant is all well and good, but if you are in a dust storm, hard to see the stars.

It was amusing to remembering reading the very fine and special book by Dava Sobel:

book jacket shows portrait of manLongitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

This was a fabulous read, and later editions really ramped up some of the embellishments, and one edition at least has a forward by Neil Armstrong. We are so used to GPS and online maps, and so on these days, it is hard to grasp the terror of not knowing where you were or where you needed to go to get to your destination. I had such an experience in the darkness around the Finger Lakes district. Pitch black, pre-GPS, no sign markers, wrong turn and driving around the completely wrong lake for hours, until I finally saw a house with a light on and the gentlemen (Bless him!) led me to a place where I could get to a hotel, if not MY hotel, which I was able to get to the next day.

We’ve all barely been able to see anything without light pollution for many years. But I tell you, fog, new moon, and fire smoke really make it hard to see anything beyond a few feet even with a flashlight.

One other nit pick that a good editor should have caught, or maybe I missed some dialogue, that broke me out of my suspension of disbelief was when Mindy referred to the Hab attachment as the “bedroom” when they did not know it as such, but had been calling it a workroom.

And I found the “decision” not to inform the crew of the ship that the hero was alive to be a much much much too big of a contrivance. Not really clear on how that moved the plot in a positive direction. It’s more like he didn’t want to write scenes that would have had to be written earlier than they ultimately were. And the trope of the renegade that sneaks a code the clever people figure out, just a bit overdone.

But all in all, good read. Don’t obsess about distractions. One reason that I have not been able to produce an acceptable piece of fiction myself is that I cannot bear any flaws. And my twisted mind comes up with something for an obstacle, it twists right around and finds a solution or why it wouldn’t be one.

It was interesting to me how little I skipped over the technical stuff. I got bored after a bit in the book Wool, simply because there was a whole scene of nothing but the lead character struggling to do something underwater. A) she’s going to survive, she’s the protagonist, B) stupid design to require the scuba expedition anyway so seems as if made thus strictly to be able to use that as a many many many page description of all the details of her difficulties. I just don’t quite understand why that led me to skip it and The Martian, citing all the math and science I don’t know, kept me engaged. Well, except for the lame short.

Lots of people like the book unreservedly so I am probably the only one to cite even the tiny nit picks I do. And if you can ignore them too, and they really are not a deal breaker, you will enjoy the book too. You may find yourself spending some time pursing side questions that the book sets up for your own entertainment as well. I know the whole compass on Mars and what would it show has gotten me interested.



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