Monday, March 31, 2014

Book Review - The Martian

I haven’t yet seen the recently acclaimed Academy Award winning movie Gravity, but the concept seems entertaining and suspenseful and I plan to see it sometime soon. Anyway, when I heard about the premise of the new book, The Martian, my first thought was to think it sounded vaguely familiar to Gravity but it seemed strangely more plausible to me (once you get past the whole “manned mission to Mars” thing).

For those unfamiliar with the story, we are in the future and have just engaged on the first Mars mission with the plan to have a group of astronauts spend a few months on the red planet conducting experiments and basically living on Mars. Unfortunately, just a few days into the mission, a huge Martian sandstorm rolls in and the decision is made to scrap the mission. The crew races for the escape launcher. As they hustle to escape, the storm breaks up the satellite dish and poles from the communications system. The pole slams into Mark Watney and sends him flying off into the dust. The captain searches for him, but time is short and based on remote life support monitors, it appears that Mark Watney is dead, so the rest of the crew escapes back to the long range transport ship and begin the return trip home. Shortly thereafter, Watney wakes inside his damaged spacesuit with alarms blaring and spends the next 500 pages trying to figure out a way to survive and hopefully return to Earth.

I haven’t read many “man versus nature” books since reading Jack London and other similar stories back in my High School days. The Martian takes the man versus nature idea and turns it on its head with a wild new set of criteria for survival. The entire concept sounded very compelling and I was thrilled to dive in. Even before cracking the cover, I was hoping to recommend the book to my 12 year old, space/astronomy loving son.

Sadly, upon reading the first sentences, I decided this book is NOT a book for kids. The book is mostly written as a first person series of journal entries by our stranded astronaut. His situation is understandably dire and as a result, many of his journal entries are smattered with cursing. The first entry begins by dropping the F-bomb…twice. The swearing continues through the book. And while it feels more “realistic” especially given the situation, neither myself or my family and friends swear and I am not a fan. The “realism” factor of the swearing in the journals felt slightly strained for me knowing that these journal entries are technically “mission logs” and while it seems logical that Watney might have cursed like that verbally, it seemed less likely that he would swear like that in “formal” professional reports, even if he expected to be dead by the time anybody read them. So...the swearing was the first knock against the book in my estimation.

Aside from the swearing, I really enjoyed the sarcastic, cynical and irreverent “voice” of Watney in his entries. I found myself frequently giggling at his commentary. He very sarcastically pointed out the ridiculousness of each situation which helped balance out the highly technical science speak. That said, the scientific language and descriptions were interesting. I’m not a rocket scientist or a botanist or a biologist, but I’ve taken a fair share of science and math classes, and found myself following along with the science just enough to stay interested and feel like the logic was sound. I don’t know how accurate the actual science is, but it sounded very authoritative and believable if a bit long winded at times.

As far as excitement and adventure, the book felt a little strange. Even the most adventurous scenes felt both fast and slow. I’m not sure exactly how to explain it. We’re presented with the intensity and suspense of difficult life-threatening situations. These scenes were exciting and fun. And yet, they sometimes felt slow and less intense than perhaps they should have. I wonder if some of this is due to the overly robust scientific segments. It also could have been that we continued for hundreds of pages with the only voice being that of Mark Watney. Even though he’s a lot of fun to listen to, his comments were a little repetitive after a while.

Fortunately, about halfway through the book, Watney figures out a way to start communicating with Earth. From that point on, we not only read his journal entires but the story also takes us to Earth and specifically to the NASA situation room and other scenes where top scientists and agencies on Earth try to figure out what to do about their stranded astronaut. These new voices to the story helped bring some fresh air to the story.

All in all, I really had a lot of fun with the book. The concept was original and, even though it was repetitive and slow at times, it felt well paced and kept me interested until the end. I was very bummed at the amount of “blue language” in the book. That in itself significantly limits the number of people I can recommend this book to and necessarily lowers my “star” review accordingly. With the success of the “Gravity” movie, I could see this being turned into a motion picture, though I suspect they’ll either change the plot to have a second person stranded on Mars as well or bring in the Earth connection earlier on. If you enjoy man vs nature and have a predilection towards science-fiction (heavy on the science), you’ll probably enjoy this.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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