The Martian (Book) Review

Mark Watney has a problem. Due to a dust storm during his NASA mission, he’s been stranded on Mars. His teammates – and the rest of mankind – thought he died. He has no way to communicate with Earth. He’s trapped in a small habitat designed to last a month. There’s no breathable atmosphere outside. He has enough food for six people which, even if rationed, will last him less than one year. Since a rescue mission will take at least four years to arrive, he has to figure out a way to grow more food…on a planet devoid of water. But if no one knows he’s still alive, he’s going to starve anyway.

Okay, make that several problems.

SPOILERS

Needless to say, The Martian isn’t your typical survival story. A deserted island is one thing, but Mars is a completely different beast. How do you live on a planet that’s essentially uninhabitable? The answer is an awesome blend of the sheer isolation and desperation of Castaway and the determination and scientific improvising of Apollo 13. Watney was part of the NASA mission for a reason; as the team’s botanist and engineer, he’s got the right skills and knowledge to keep himself alive. Not enough food? Okay, cover the floor of the Hab with dirt, plant potatoes, and use your own waste as fertilizer. Keep track of your daily calories and ration accordingly. No water? Fine, burn some hydrazine, store the results, and be careful not to blow yourself up. Need to go on long excursions outside? Outfit your rover with solar panels, create a breathable atmosphere inside, and find a heat source to keep yourself from freezing. Communications array busted? Scrounge for leftover technology, fix what you can, and send information via telemetry, handwritten signs, or Morse code. Your spacesuit helmet cracked? Duct tape.

Seriously.

While some of these MacGuyver-esque techniques might seem daunting for the non-scientifically inclined, The Martian is quite to easy to read and understand. Andy Weir’s extensive research in potential and existing spaceflight technology shows through in both the details and the way they’re presented. While most sci-fi narratives are bogged down by their technical aspects, this novel benefits from having a narrator with a sense of humor. For all his expertise, Watney is a huge geek with a penchant for sarcasm. His first journal entry is laden with profanity, which is exactly how any normal person would react. His ability to describe realistic science in layman’s terms is impressive and often funny; he can say things like, “Problem is (follow me closely here, the science is pretty complicated), if I cut a hole in the Hab, the air won’t stay inside anymore” or “Something very hot and very explodey had happened” without coming off as condescending. His journal entries give a sense of confidence and self-awareness; he confronts the dire situation with straightforwardness and honesty, but relies on knowledge and humor to keep himself sane. When he’s not explaining how stuff works, his idle musings over Aquaman, Three’s Company, disco, other pop culture tidbits are more than enough to keep readers hooked.

Whenever we need a reminder that Watney’s situation isn’t all laughs, however, the perspective switches over to the rescue operation. NASA discovering he’s still alive is a foregone conclusion; they still have active satellites observing the planet’s surface. Communicating with and getting him back to Earth requires extensive logistics and engineering marvels. The novel examines what would actually happen in this kind of situation; the media frenzy, JPL redesigning rockets with limited time and budget, spaceflight physics, and frantic improvising when things go wrong. There are no villains; everyone wants Watney to make it back alive. How that’s achieved is up for debate, and coming up with a decisive plan is what forms the conflict. While the explanations are in-depth, the characters describing them are not. Most of NASA’s higher-ups (aside from the wonderfully brash Mitch Henderson and supremely competent Mindy Park) are sadly forgettable. Watney’s crew fare little better; their personalities are developed just enough to keep things interesting. There’s potential, like Commander Lewis dealing with the guilt of leaving one of her men behind, or Johanssen’s adorkable interactions with Beck. Aside from those, the astronauts are utterly one-note. Martinez is an ace pilot, constant joker, and nothing else. Then there’s Vogel, the German orbital mechanics and chemistry expert. That’s all. They all provide a little witty banter and technical expertise to get them – and the reader – through the mission, but nothing else. While the story is supposed to be focused on Watney’s survival, a little more time with the rest of the crew would’ve been appreciated.

That doesn’t make The Martian a bad novel. Far from it. It’s got just the right combination of humor and technical know-how to keep readers hooked. Mark Watney is a wonderful protagonist; his snarky attitude and determination turn what should’ve been a tragedy into an epic survival adventure. While the other characters don’t get nearly enough time, they serve their purposes in portraying a nearly impossible rescue mission. The story is well-paced and incredibly difficult not to finish in one sitting. Not due to brevity – the paperback release clocks in at just under 400 pages – but because it’s entertaining. I’m not going to spoil if or how Watney survives, but let’s just say that you’ll be rooting for him every complicated step of the way. This is one of those rare science fiction novels that strives for realism, but absolutely refuses to be weighed down by technical jargon. It can inspire people to study sciences, space flight and exploration, and anything else associated with astronomy. That, above all else, makes The Martian worth reading.

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The Book Sale, Round 2

Yesterday, I visited a local library that was having their annual book sale. I walked away with a great selection, but knew I’d be coming back. They changed up the rules for the last day of the event. They let me take as many as I could carry, but charged two bucks per bag. I ended up with:

Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres
Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Harper Collins German Concise Dictionary (1999 2nd Edition)
The Hunt For Red October by Tom Clancy
Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis
Major British Writers (1959 University of Michigan Edition)
The New College French & English Dictionary (1988 2nd Edtion)
The Norton Reader 12th Edition
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper
The Rainmaker by John Grisham
Shogun by James Clavell
Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde
The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy
The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett

To quote a certain director, “I may have gone too far in a few places.” But for only four bucks, it was totally worth it.

A Puzzle, Piece By Piece

When I was a young child – before kindergarten, even – someone would read to me every night. It was rarely either of my parents, but that didn’t matter; I just wanted a story told. It was part of the bedtime routine, like brushing my teeth. There was something special about reading, that all those strange little symbols and pictures meant something beyond my comprehension. I thought that if I looked at the book just right, then maybe I could understand it, too. I knew what some of it meant (Wheel of Fortune taught me the alphabet) but I had to make sure. I asked whoever was watching me to read the same stories to me over and over. I had the tales of Peter Rabbit, Goodnight Moon, and Ping engrained in my memory through sheer repetition, so much so that I knew when the storyteller was skipping pages.

That’s right, I memorized Peter Rabbit before I even knew how to read.

Needless to say, the adults in my life were quite happy when I learned to read on my own. Oh sure, I had my share of toys and cartoons, but everyone knew I spent most of my time with books. Visiting a bookstore was like going to Disneyland, and hand-me-downs from a grownup’s library were treasures. My parents weren’t particular about the things I read; if I came across something I couldn’t understand, I’d just ask or pull out a dictionary. Most of my early childhood books were standard for the time. The Boxcar Children was one of the first series I ever encountered, and I loved how the kids had distinct personalities, could solve mysteries, and go on adventures without supervision. There was something striking about its first book, which focused on the group running away from home, dealing with illness and hunger, and attempting to survive in the eponymous abandoned boxcar. Though the writing was easy to understand and led to a happy ending, the ideas it introduced were pretty scary in retrospect. The same could not be said for Goosebumps, which introduced me to zombies, ghosts, vampires, and all those other stock terrors. Those books are laughable now (as anyone who reads Blogger Beware can attest), but most 80s-90s kids followed them religiously.

The mysteries and horrors must’ve affected me more than I realized, because I practically devoured Stephen King’s work. I started with The Shining, and it rocked my little world so hard. You think it’s scary now? Try reading it when the only character anywhere near your age is Danny Torrance. Room 217, man! Long, deserted hallways still creep me out sometimes. I moved on Salem’s Lot, The Stand, It, and beyond, broadening my interests in the supernatural with each passing book. You’d think that such grisly content might traumatize young readers – I wasn’t even in middle school yet – but I just kept turning the pages. My mother kept track of how much I read, earning me in-class awards for extra work and setting records. I’d go to the school library and borrow books by the stack, including relatively age-appropriate works like The Giver, Babar, Tintin, and Aesop’s Fables.

For my 10th birthday, my parents decided that I was ready for classic literature. My gift was a used copy of The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. No, seriously. I’m not kidding in the slightest. I’m pretty sure I was the only sixth grader hauling around a 1,026-page anthology on the playground. You want to get a kid hooked on reading? Try making him or her read a short story every day, and ask them about it. The Tell-Tale Heart is one of my all-time favorites. So is Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, whose brilliance and eccentricities made him stand out amongst all the protagonists that crossed my path. Even to this day, I still gravitate towards characters like Naoto Shirogane and Batman because of my love for the detective archetype. The rest of the novels collected and read during those years is like a Barnes & Noble classics section: The Odyssey, Les Miserables, Huck Finn, A Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Letter, Dracula, Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice…the list goes on and on and on. I’m not sure if I could accomplish that level of retention now that I’m older. By the time I reached AP English in high school, I’d already finished most of the required reading.

Looking back, I probably let books take over too much of my life. You should’ve seen me. A short, shy, quiet, overachieving, ambiguously effeminate boy with big glasses, no friends, and spends all his time reading large books? That’s prime bullying material right there. All I needed was a bow tie, inhaler, and a pocket protector to complete the stereotype. There’s always that cliche of people having huge personal libraries to look smarter. But for me, I read all those books because I wanted to. I was fascinated by all the references and information, and wanted to learn everything about them. I didn’t know anything about Greek mythology until I read Homer. The more I read, the more connections and themes I saw. Religion, psychology, politics, history, sexuality…things kept reappearing, but in different ways. Books became more than stories to me; they were complex puzzles with pieces that twisted and flowed together. If I could see those individual parts, I could better understand the whole. I didn’t say much, but I let my schoolwork do the talking for me. All of my teachers noted exceptional writing ability, especially when it came to critical thinking and analysis. Despite being so quiet and reclusive, I was often near or at the top of my class.

I didn’t really understand what the big deal was. I just wrote about what puzzle pieces I noticed, and everyone seemed to like it. I was surprised when I was chosen to do a speech at the graduation ceremony; why’d they want a shy, little guy like me up on the stage in front of everyone? Nor did I expect that my General Education courses would be so easy. Even my video game reviews – something I did on the side for fun – garnered a massive readership. I improved my writing with each passing week, but never appreciated the change. It wasn’t until I took a university course in Critical Theory that everything finally clicked together. Someone else understood how I approached reading? There were names for all those pieces? Deconstruction was a thing? The revelation was stunning, and I realized I’d tapped into something awesome without even knowing. I took that knowledge and ran with it all the way through the rest of my degree and beyond.

I still read and write, of course. It’s a not so much of a hobby as it as a necessity. When you’re a quiet loner, you need an outlet for communication and creativity. You’ll drive yourself crazy otherwise. Most people can’t hear me when I speak aloud, but they can read my writing all too well. I love doing critical analyses of works, be they novels, movies, video games, etc. I wish I could write and publish fiction – I dream of an endless library à la Borges – but completing NaNoWriMo twice has left me wary. I’m much better at taking things apart than I am at building them. There are few individuals in my personal life, and even fewer who’ve seen my work offline. Everyone had their own interests, and they consider writing beyond academics to be strange. There’s an unspoken sense of shame and contempt involved; these days, it’s as if writing isn’t worth the time and effort. But I know better. I take pride in what I write. It’s fulfilling and enriching. It allows me to better understand the world, and hopefully pass on that knowledge to others. Like the detectives I idolized, I keep looking for answers.

Life is a puzzle, and I see the pieces. Can you?