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April 18, 2014

Preppin' on Mars: The Martian by Andy Weir

Brief book review. I read this a while ago. It's pretty good.

The premise -- which is a bit dodgy, but I'll grant the writer some latitude in establishing his premise -- is that a single member of a Mars exploration crew is left behind, presumed dead, when the entire team evacuates during a high-powered windstorm that threatens to destroy their camp.

The lone survivor -- the "Martian" of the title -- regains consciousness and takes stock of his situation. There is no possible hope of rescue for four years. He has enough food for something like 300 days (50 days of food for each of the six planned crewmen). So he has to extend his 300 days of food into something like 1450 days.

I mean 1450 "sols." You can't say "day" because a day is an actual measure of time corresponding to 24 hours. A Martian "day" is not the same length of an earth day (though it's pretty damn close), so instead it's called a "sol," which I guess is short for solar cycle.

The "Martian" basically becomes a Prepper. He uses almost all of the floorspace of his habitation unit -- and almost all of his excrement -- as a makeshift farm for growing the highest-energy-density food possible, potatoes. He realizes he also won't have enough water to grow his potatoes, so he's forced to engage in some dangerous chemistry to synthesize hundreds of liters of water out of oxygen and... rocket fuel. And he has to do perform various cannibalizations and modifications to his Mars Rover Vehicles, because his only hope of escape -- 1450 sols down the road -- is making a dangerous and lengthy overland journey over the perilously high/abyssally low Martian terrain to the site of the anticipated landing zone for the next Mars mission.

It's a pretty fun adventure/survival/settler book. (The book does not mention it at all, but it does suggest to a reader (or at least this reader) the travails faced by the early American colonists, or the Antarctic explorers. It's just kind of implicit in this sort of story, without having to be mentioned.)

It's mostly a collection of his diary entries while on Mars. I always feel this is a cheat, because it permits a writer to resort to a very bloggy, casual style of writing in which very little work is exerted. But it mostly works, and I guess is justifiable. This sort of epistolatory novel has a long tradition, after all. Robinson Crusoe was also journal entries, if I remember from the last time I read it. (When I say "I read it" I mean I briefly skimmed the Wikipedia entry.)

But the writer finds this format -- an epistolatory novel consisting of nothing but "found documents" like journal entries or government memoranda -- constraining at times, and then breaks into a conventional third-person omniscient narrative, which is jarring for a couple of reasons. First, just because it's breaking the journal format established earlier, and second, because Weir is, well, his Third Person Narrator style of writing is just as slapdash as his First Person Blog Account style.

It's actually a lot worse, because at least the First Person Blog Account permits a lot of humor (his "Martian" is very jokey) and we don't expect a high degree of literary craft in a journal entry.

But when you switch over to Third Person Narrator, well now that's the actual author of the book writing it, and you don't cut him slack for not being much of a stylist.

In addition, these Third Person Narrator accounts are mostly set on earth, concerning earth officials' efforts to get the stranded "Martian" back to earth, and the read, unfortunately, like those old sci-fi magazine stories in which characters pretty much just speak to each other about Plot Conceits with some occasional Science and Engineering Fan Service thrown in.

And then, when you begin to wish for some actual characterization in these parts, he offers the bare minimum of check-that-box characterization, and you wish he hadn't even bothered.

In fact, I kept thinking as I read these parts: they're so badly written, without any real effort to make these characters seem alive and real, that he really should have stuck to the Full Epistolatory Format and just made these memoranda or minutes from meetings. If he'd done that, the lack of characterization or versimilitude wouldn't be a problem; it would be a virtue. Meetings of NASA meetings aren't supposed to contain a lot of extraneous character information, after all.

There are also a few patches of Very Convenient Plotting Syndrome. These were especially grating because, mostly, they didn't seem necessary-- they have to do with narrative convenience (and, at times, narrative laziness). They don't really affect the main plot that much, which makes the appearance of bits of This Is What Happens Because I Said So more unfortunate.

That said, the book is just fun. Sure, the first person journal account is not the best way to describe the long ride in the MRV near the climax. I would have preferred a Third Person account there, to better convey the wonder of driving through Mars' red dust, down its mile-deep ravines.

And sure, here and there it's written so craftlessly it gets distracting.

But the story is just undeniable fun. The situation is inherently interesting.

And the main character is admirable: There's just no quit in him, and he never gets down. I would have liked him to be more depressed at the beginning, so that his resolution to Just Survive would be more dramatic, but the character winds up being that type who wouldn't get that depressed.

Surviving on Mars for four years, despite only having provisions for 100 sols, is just a problem that needs to be worked through. There's no point crying about it, there's no point blaming the crew that left him behind, and there's no point cursing NASA and God. Just Get On With It. Just do what you need to do, get through the next 30 days so you can then plot how to get through the next thirty. Just keep calm and carry on.

And if you blow up your habitation unit while playing around with your rocket fuel chemistry experiment, you don't cry about it like a baby. When you regain consciousness, you just get out the Duck Tape and start fixin' the thing.

So while at first I wanted more of a depression to seize him, as I read the book I liked the way the character was actually written better. He's an astronaut, after all, and he's not an Everyman. He's the sort of guy who signed up for this years-long, high-chance-of-death mission in the first place.

He's not going to be like I would be in this situation -- fortunately for him, because I just would have eaten the 100 sols of food in 50 days and then hung myself from the radio mast.

Which would have been stupid, because the gravity wouldn't have been enough to do a proper job of strangling me. So I would have f***ed that up too. (By the way, the author uses the f word a lot.)

Overall, it's about Mars, it's about survival, it's about preppin', it's about just shutting up with the complaints and working on the problem at hand.

It's pretty good. There are worst ways to spend a coupla-three nights, and most of those involve the televison.

DIY: Commenters have made me aware of something I didn't previously know -- the book was self-published on Amazon for 99 cents before being bought up by a real publisher (and now sells for $9.99).

It's also been optioned for a movie.

Kind of cool.

I now sort of understand why at times this reads like a book written by an amateur that wasn't professionally edited -- because that's what it is.

Still, flaws and all, it stands on its strengths.

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posted by Ace at 04:31 PM

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