Sunday, September 27, 2015

REVIEW: THE MARTIAN

INTRODUCTION
Science Fiction is a genre full of possibilities. It can be as wild or as grounded as an author wants their work to be. You can even see traces of it in sub-genres like Dystopic YA books and Super Hero fiction. There's just a lot of variety to enjoy as a SciFi fan and it's books like Andy Weir's THE MARTIAN that really drive that point home.

HOW I CAME UPON IT
I'd heard about THE MARTIAN from a number of sources on Goodreads and BookTube (YouTube). Ultimately, I picked it up for the BookTubeSFF readalong which ran during August. I wound up finishing it a little later than I wanted to so I am just now getting around to the review. The book itself has a really interesting story in that it was first indie published online, chapter by chapter, then was put up as a cheap Kindle book and recently got picked up by a publisher AND there is now a movie soon to be released based on it starring Matt Damon. Needless to say I was very excited to dive into this one.

HOW I RATED IT

4/5 It's not a perfect book, nor is it one I'd count among my absolute favorites, but it offers such a uniquely entertaining experience, that it's hard not to recommend it. From the harsh setting to the charming characters, there's just an awful lot to love here.

CHARACTERS
Perhaps the strongest selling point on this entire novel is it's qurikily irreverent, yet fiercely intelligent main protagonist, Mark Watney.  Right from the opening line of the novel, I knew I'd love Mark. He finds himself in a dire situation where he is separated from the rest of his crew during a NASA sponsored mission to Mars and they are forced to take off without him or else risk their own ability to leave the planet. We get to see this tragic incident play out through several different perspectives over the course of the novel which does help illustrate just how freakish of an accident this really was. Right away, Mark realizes he doesn't have time to dwell on that moment or even to sulk at the severity of his circumstances. He needs to find a way to let NASA know he's still alive and then he must contrive a means to survive long enough for an extraction. He's left with the HAB (a sort of inflatable command center), two rovers, and what's left of the departure shuttle's parts. He's only stocked with enough food to last a little while and he's forced to survive all of this without the company of any other human beings.

Though his situation is grim, Mark is anything but. He's chirpy and weird in a way that feels quite admirable considering what he's up against. He's the sort of person that finds humor in situations where few others would even conceive of cracking a joke to themselves. He's also an engineer/botanist so his skillet is certainly among the most interesting of science fiction heroes. Even during points where the book slows down a little, it was Mark's humor and infallible scientific wit that kept me engaged.

Although Mark spends his time on Mars in solitude, we as readers actually get to follow members of his crew aboard their shuttle as well as people over at NASA who have to face the consequences of a man being left behind on Mars. These may not be the most entertaining sequences in the novel, but it was definitely nice to have the perspective shift from Mark's inner thoughts to a third person perspective that focused on the people affected by Mark's survival. Of these side characters, I preferred Mark's crew to the folks over in NASA. The crew just felt a bit more varied and were easier to relate to. There are a couple of standouts with the NASA team, but their personalities are far less distinct and it was mostly just interesting to see how Mark's struggle had impacts back on Earth.

WORLD/SETTING
As the title indicates, this story takes place on the red planet. Though like I said above, certain sequences also bring readers to Earth and to the crew's space shuttle. In spite of how barren it is, Mars takes on quite a life to it since the harsh climate appears to be hellbent on killing Mark in one way or another. It is also a bit more interesting in this book than it would be in real life because this is not NASA's first mission to Mars. The process of how landing zones are set up is quite interesting and the other research bases do play an important part in Mark's survival.

The cramped space shuttle presents a far more serene atmosphere but it soon becomes heavier once the crew realize that their comrade is alive. This location serves as an interesting side locale in between sequences of Mark's struggle against Mars. The tech on this ship is pretty cool, but it's nothing so out there that it felt out of place with the more grounded resources that Mark had to work with on Mars. To be clear, there's certainly some made-up technology to be found in both places, but nothing seemed so far fetched that NASA could never come up with something like it.

Rounding out the setting is the NASA command center on earth. While it's mostly just a series of governmental offices and corporate meeting rooms, the constant hustle and bustle that goes on here kept it a lively point of action. As things heat up for Mark on Mars, the chaos back on Earth accelerates as well and it was very cool to jump back and forth between these two simultaneous conflicts.

PLOT/TONE
As I've already stated, this story is as funny as it is gripping. Weir has offered us a survival story unlike any other and he truly makes the most out of it. Unfortunately, while the characters and settings are all fantastic, I found the overall plot and tone of this piece to be a bit of a mixed bag. This largely stems from how science-heavy the book is. While I do enjoy science and thought that the technical aspects of the narrative were described in an accessible  way, it also felt like a bit much. First and foremost, this is a novel about a man's survival against the most extreme of odds. While explaining each and every scientific trick that Mark employs is certainly interesting and does go a long way to fleshing out his character, I also felt that it distracted from the main story-line a bit. Parts that should have been faster paced were slowed down by lengthy explanations of how or why something happened and then the subsequent actions toward establishing a resolution were equally bogged down by a lot of text that wasn't entirely necessary toward actually telling the story. The science parts do feel quite well thought out and theoretically legitimate so it's hard to knock Weir for the contents at their face value. Readers should just be aware that having all this wonderfully written science (fiction) comes at the price of a somewhat slower pacing and less intense action.

CONCLUSION
Because each moment and every piece of technology is so thoroughly explained, THE MARTIAN is a book that literally anyone can enjoy regardless of their prior experience with the science fiction genre. It's also great fun to read a piece that is so grounded in reality. It's not "gritty" science fiction, but it does feel entirely plausible and starkly human. Even though there are parts where Weir seems a little too concerned with proving that all of this actually could happen, the story is still very strong thanks to a compelling supporting cast, an all-star main character, and a setting which I will likely not forget any time soon. If you haven't read this yet, then you really should find out what you've been missing out on.

THE MARTIAN can be found in basically every edition your little bookworm heart could hope for on Amazon.

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