Thursday, August 20, 2015

Signal Watch Reads: The Martian, Andy Weir (audiobook)

I guess back in January, my pal Paul suggested I read The Martian (2011) by Andy Weir.  I know this because I keep a list of books I've read mixed with a list of suggestions I've taken seriously, and I do write down who made the suggestion.

When the trailer hit for the soon-to-be-in-theaters Ridley Scott directed version of The Martian, it was absolutely the sort of thing I like seeing, and I got pretty excited.  I was a big fan of Interstellar, and I even really liked Gravity, warts and all.  And as much as I like strange visitors from other worlds-type scientifiction, I also get pretty jazzed about fictional takes or speculative takes on plain old science and technology.  Mix that with the space program, like the two movies I just mentioned, and you've sold a couple of tickets to the occupants of my household.

You've got a few weeks before the movie arrives, and I highly recommend checking out the book prior to the film's release.  It's not that I think Matt Damon and Co. will do a bad job - I'm a big fan of Damon (have you seen the Bourne movies?).  It's that the book is really good and reads really fast.  I'd started the book just over a week ago, and recommended it to Jamie.  She started and finished it all today.  So, there's a context clue for you (and she also cleaned out the cupboard.  I think she bent time.).

I listened to the audiobook, which takes longer, of course, but it more than filled the commute and back I had to Arlington, Texas this week.

If you haven't seen the trailer - and I'm not spoiling anything - an astronaut is delivering his first log entry after an accident occurred during an emergency evacuation of a Mars mission.  He'd been stuck through by part of a loose antenna in a wind storm, and then blown over a hill, his suit's life signs reading nil.  Of course, he wasn't dead, but the crew was forced to leave him, and now he's stuck on Mars, with no way to contact home, the next mission coming to the planet in 4 years, and only enough supplies for 6 people for about a month.

And yet, it's the most optimistic book I've read in years.  Maybe ever.

It's a book that embraces the possibilities of science and engineering, of the will of the individual, of what we can do when we do work together, and how we're better off when we reach out to help one another.  And lots and lots of MacGuyvering of equipment.

There will be the inevitable comparisons to Apollo 13, both the real incident and the movie.  And, I'll confess, I found the movie of Apollo 13 kind of cheesy and anticlimactic.  Yes, I know, I'm dead inside, but it felt more or less like what it was - a Hollywood retelling of an actual incident I was well aware of, and which brought nothing new that couldn't have been done better in a documentary with the living participants.  At least here, I literally had no idea how any of this was going to work from the first log entry.

Weir also works to build characters - not just Mark Watney, our stranded scientist/ engineer, but the crew of the failed mission and the players at NASA central and JPL.  Watney is more in line with your Chris Hadfield-type astronaut than your John Glenn or Alan Shepard types.  He's a guy with dual degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Botany, and who has been selected for a mission set to last over a year because his psych profile isn't that of a quitter, and he's not awful to be around.  It's a pretty darn good combination, because it keeps the reader from ever sinking too far down into the pits of despair as you ride Watney's elation with each win or success, all while really worrying about the guy.

Weir is also able to sketch the other characters, all without physical descriptions, discussions of their personal lives, etc... it's all business, and we're getting to know them through the same criteria that introduces us to Watney - how will they react to challenge and adversity?  What do they look like on their bleakest days?

I don't know enough about science or engineering to guess whether this book is B.S. or not (degrees in film and history do not prepare you for books heavy on people doing math), and I'm sure the movie will get lots of those "what did The Martian get wrong?" listicles.  But it does feel extraordinarily well thought out and worked out.  I have recently heard it said that people like stories because they give us a simulation for solving problems, and part of our brains just gets really happy when problems and puzzles get a solution.  If you're the kind of person for whom figuring out how to debug a seemingly intractable problem means you sit back and fist pump a bit, then, man, have I got a book for you.

At the end of the day, and after we have reached Mars and everyone laughs at the science of this book and movie, what will still be true will be the better part of human nature, our desire to live and thrive, to ability to solve problems, our belief in others and ourselves are all bigger and stronger than hopelessness.  This is something I believe, personally, and the book is that belief writ large.

But, damn, if it's not a gripping book and a page turner.

I was impressed by the narration of R.C. Bray.  In what could have been a dodgy choice, characters are given accents, giving the book a global feel, and, if you've worked around well-degreed folks, a pretty solid and believable international flair.  I bought most of the accents, and he never strays into parody or even stereotype, and he does give Watney a good bit of personality.  There really was never a point where his reading felt at odds with the text or made me ask questions.

I'm heavily recommending this as the book you should have read at the beach this summer.

Now, if you just want to wait for the movie, here's the trailer:


Simon MacDonald said...

I endorse this book wholeheartedly. I read the original self published version and it is really, really good. You should Google the original ending as it is not substantially different from the published version but it worth the minute it takes to find and read. As for the science in the book I believe it to be mostly correct. Obviously there are some things that he takes dramatic license with and you can hear him talk about it on this good podcast interview:

Anyway, great book and can't wait for the movie!

The League said...

I absolutely cannot find that paragraph or so. If you happen to have it... I'm just saying, no one will know.

I'll see about getting that podcast downloaded ASAP.