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Book Review: The Martian

By (February 16, 2014) One Comment

The MartianThe-Martian-Andy-Weir-197x300

by Andy Weir

Crown Publishers, 2014


It glitters there in our night sky, bright and cold, and it always has, and a new, stunning photo taken by the Curiosity rover shows that we’ve always glittered in its night sky as well: Mars, the estranged sister-planet of Earth, tantalizes more the more we learn about it. Long dead and dried ocean beds echo with increasing clarity the strange tides they once held; arid dust hints at the fertile soil it once was; furtive wisps of a living atmosphere whisper of a climatic lottery Earth has won but might one day lose. The more information Curiosity and its fellow pathfinders beam back to Earth, the more it becomes clear that what really separates Earth from Mars is not 55 million miles but the utterly mysterious gulf between good luck and bad. An inch here or there, and Mars would be the blossoming blue garden-world that Earth is; an inch here or there, and Earth would be the beautiful, empty tundra-world that Mars is.

The nearness of this sibling rivalry has drawn writers for over a century. For Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Red Planet was a place of lush fantasy and valor and barbarity; for Ray Bradbury, it was an oddly passive gallery of responses to the men who explored it; for Robert Heinlein, it was home to utterly alien beings whose “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” (as H. G. Wells, another Mars-dreamer, put it) are also fiercely, surreally sexual. These and countless other variations are all the conceptual grandchildren of the great Bostonian astronomer Percival Lowell, for whom “Mars” and “Martians” were synonymous.

earth_from_marsCuriosity and its kindred have found no life on Mars. They’ve found no trace of life. The thing that haunts the dreams of every NASA dreamer looks more and more likely to be true: that Mars might once have had blue skies and flowing rivers, but that it never generated life of any kind. On Earth, a rain puddle sitting in the sun for four hours will be swarming with microbes; the far edge of the stratosphere is filled with hang-gliding spider-babies; vents at the bottom of the sea’s deepest trenches host blind, indestructible creatures who fight and forage (and play, for all we know) under enough pressure per square inch to crush titanium. Earth, having been for billions of years molten and meteor-pocked, is now mind-bogglingly fecund. It’s entirely possible that Mars never was. It’s possible that no place else ever was.

Still, the Percival Lowell impulse is so strong that the title of Andy Weir’s irresistible new science fiction novel, The Martian, will feel more recognizable to most readers than the titles of far more human tales like Oblomov or Winesburg, Ohio. Those readers are far readier to meet a Martian than they are to meet an embezzler, or an adulterer, or a high-minded English duke.

The Martian those readers will meet in Weir’s novel really wishes he wasn’t one; he’s a recent immigrant who’d like very much to emigrate. His name is Mark Watney, and he’s a botanist/engineer on the crew of the Ares 3 mission to Mars in the recognizably near future. He and his teammates have only just recently situated themselves in their base’s artificial habitat (“the Hab”) when an unexpected windstorm separates Watney from the group and leaves them with no alternative but to scrap the mission – and assume he’s dead.

But Mark Watney isn’t dead, and he quickly realizes that if he’s going to survive until the arrival of the next Ares mission – in four years – he’s going to need every bit of scientific knowledge he’s ever acquired. He has an array of advantages: he’s got the mission’s habitat and all its technology for providing shelter and recycling oxygen and distilling drinking water. But a moment’s mental arithmetic is sufficient for him to know that this advantages won’t be enough to sustain one human life for four years. He’ll need more food than his stored ration-packs can provide; he’ll need more water than the reserves he’s got; he’ll need to set up the rudiments of a functioning indoor ecosystem – which will require, first of all, a knowledge of how his Earth-ecosystems worked in the first place. Weir’s book is full Watney’s digressions into such knowledge, and virtually all of them are fascinating:

Soil bacteria are used to winters. They get less active, and require less oxygen to survive. I can lower the Hab temperature to 1 degree C, and they’ll nearly hibernate. This sort of thing happens on Earth all the time. They can survive a couple of days this way. If you’re wondering how bacteria on Earth survive longer periods of cold, the answer is they don’t. Bacteria from further underground where it is warmer breed upward to replace the dead ones.

Weir gives Watney dozens of such ingenious insights into how he can do the things he needs to do, and the biggest of the things our hero wants to do is somehow communicate with Earth to let them know he’s not dead. He figures he needs to travel to the future landing-site of the Ares 4 mission, and travel needs navigation, which raises a whole new set of problems:

Latitude and longitude. That’s the key. The first is easy. Ancient sailors on Earth figured that one out right away. Earth’s 23.5-degree axis points at Polaris. Mars has a tilt of just over 25 degrees, so it’s pointed at Deneb …

Making a sextant isn’t hard. All you need is a tube to look through, a string, a weight, and something with degree markings. I made mine in under an hour …

So I go out every night with a homemade sextant and sight Deneb. It’s kind of silly if you think about it. I’m in my space suit on Mars and I’m navigating with sixteenth-century tools.

But there’s more to The Martian than Mr. Fix-It factual nuggets. Right from the beginning, Weir understands that if he’s going to strand his readers on Mars alone with his main character, that main character had better be good company. Watney is a likeable schmuck, prone to barbed self-mockery and a dogged optimism that takes dozens of seemingly insuperable obstacles in stride. But every so often, the sheer singular bleakness of his situation dawns on him:

… it hit me: Mars is a barren wasteland and I am completely alone here. I already knew that, of course. But there’s a difference between knowing it and really experiencing it. All around me there was nothing but dust, rocks, and endless empty desert in all directions. The planet’s famous red color is from iron oxide coating everything. So it’s not just a desert. It’s a desert so old it’s literally rusting.

What Watney doesn’t know is that his Ares program colleagues back on Earth have figured out that he’s still alive, and his story has galvanized not only public support but a scientific rescue mission. With a great deal of skill, Weir twines these two plot-strands closer and closer together, making for a climax that’s a dozen times more anxious than it logically should be. Some of the book’s science strikes even this layman as a bit far-fetched (particularly Watney’s solution of how to grow Mars’ very first crop of potatoes which, if it really worked, would have made it unnecessary for the sainted Donoghue and Powers forebears to grace Boston with their presence since, to put it mildly, Watney’s magic ingredient can be found in abundance in the Emerald Isle), but as all the other Percival Lowell grandchildren have demonstrated, scrupulous scientific accuracy isn’t the only or the most important factor in these kinds of Mars-tributes.

Watney encounters no four-armed green-skinned thark warriors, no amorphous super-beings or tripod-building conquerors, but it doesn’t matter. Against all odds, on his first time at bat, Andy Weir has written a science fiction classic – a scrappy, rough-around-the-edges classic, but a classic all the same.