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 AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…