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:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you


Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

The Ascent of Gravity - Marcus Chown ****

Marcus Chown is one of the UK's best writers on physics and astronomy - it's excellent to see him back on what he does best. Here we discover our gradual approach to understanding the nature of gravity - the 'ascent' of the title - which, though perhaps slightly overblown in the words 'the force that explains everything' (quantum physics does quite a lot too, for example), certainly makes us aware of the importance of this weakest of fundamental forces. Chown's approach to gravity is a game of three halves, as they say, broadly covering Newton, Einstein and where we go from general relativity.
As far as the first two sections go, with the exception of the 2015 gravitational waves detection, there's not much that's actually new - if you want a popular science exploration of these aspects of the topic with more depth see this reviewer's Gravity - but no one has covered the topic with such a light touch and joie de vivre as Chown. 
Although Chown doe…