Skip to main content

The Martian (SF) - Andy Weir *****

I read The Martian a year ago this month, just after embarking on the research for my own (non-fiction) book Destination Mars. And it had an impact. Before reading Andy Weir’s novel, although I was fascinated on a theoretical level by the idea of sending people to Mars, I was immensely sceptical about it as a practical proposition. By the time I’d finished the novel, I was an out-and-out Mars enthusiast. Any work of fiction that can change the way you think about a subject – especially one you’re already familiar with – has got to be worth five stars.

Actually, The Martian is pretty much the perfect science fiction novel. It’s strong on all the essential elements – an edge-of-the-seat plot with an engaging cast of characters, combined with a genuine respect for, and understanding of, a whole range of scientific disciplines. And it avoids all those unnecessary trappings that spoil a lot of contemporary SF, such as complex, soap-operatic relationships and political/philosophical preachiness. The result – in spirit if not style – is reminiscent of the great Arthur C. Clarke. On the inside front cover of the edition I read, Stephen Baxter describes The Martian as ‘the best space disaster story since Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust’. That’s a spot-on comparison; in both novels there’s good science on almost every page – not out of gratuitous geekiness, but because when you’re stranded in a non-terrestrial environment, you really do need a lot of scientific literacy just to stay alive.

The basic storyline of The Martian – with Mark Watney accidentally stranded on the Red Planet when his fellow astronauts evacuate in the wake of a disastrous storm – will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Ridley Scott’s big-screen adaptation. However, while the movie sticks fairly faithfully to Weir’s plot, the novel’s best bits – Watney’s geeky sense of humour and limitless scientific ingenuity – are toned down to appeal to a wide, non-scientifically-educated audience. Fortunately, that wasn’t an issue when Weir was writing the novel – he originally published it in instalments on his blog, for a small audience of like-minded people. The result is a novel packed with science – not just to deal with the numerous crises Watney is assailed with, but all the everyday stuff as well. There’s physics, chemistry and biology, planetary science and orbital dynamics, electrical and electronic engineering, medical science – and probably a few others I’ve forgotten.

In a book that’s so overtly geeky, it’s inevitable that some readers are going to pore over it looking for scientific errors. There are a few of these – perhaps most significantly the huge storm that triggers the mission abort in the first place. In reality, the Martian atmosphere is too thin to support a devastating storm of this type – but without it, Weir wouldn’t have had a story to tell! Interestingly, there’s another small error at the start of the story, which Ridley Scott spotted and put right in the movie (probably the only instance of the film being more scientifically credible than the novel). In Weir’s version, the mission abort happens 6 days after the astronauts land on Mars – in the movie it’s 18 days. Why? Well, the reason is somewhat indecorous, so I won’t spell it out. Let’s just say that Watney needs an adequate supply of human-sourced fertiliser to grow his potatoes.


Paperback:  

Kindle:  



Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

The Laser Inventor - Theodore Maiman ****

While the memoirs of many scientists are probably best kept for family consumption, there are some breakthroughs where the story is sufficiently engaging that it can be fascinating to get an inside view on what really happened. Although Theodore Maiman's autobiographical book is not a slick, journalist-polished account, it is very effective at highlighting two significant narratives - how Maiman was able to construct the first ever laser, despite having far fewer resources than many of his competitors, and how 'establishment' academic physicists, particularly in the US, tried to minimise his achievement.

On the straight autobiographical side, we get some early background and discover how Maiman combined degrees in electrical engineering and physics to have an unusually strong mix of the practical and the theoretical. Rather than go into academia after his doctorate, he went into industry - which seems to have been responsible for the backlash against his invention, which we…