Muse du Jour

My name is Marianne Plumridge. I am an artist of mythic fantasy works and fine art images. I also satisfy my creative muse with sewing, cooking, writing and reading. These are my thoughts and adventures with whichever muse drives me each day. You can find more of my art at www.marianneplumridge.com

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Location: New England, United States

Thursday, December 04, 2014

THE MARTIAN....A Book Review


“I think there was a sense after dad’s (Scott Carpenter, Aurora 7, 1962) flight that we had the wrong type of astronaut going up into space, so it was a coup. They (Chris Kraft and Deke Slayton) built it (the flight program) in accordance with their (own) vision, which had more to do with machines than exploration, and in time, of course, they lost the hearts and minds of the American people.”
     
Kris Stoever (nee Carpenter), Moon Dust, by Andrew Smith, Bloomsbury, UK 2005

THE MARTIAN

by  Andy Weir

CROWN, Random House;
Hardcover; $24.00 US;
ISBN 978-0-8041-3902-1;  
369 pages; 2014; 

Originally self-published, 
in different form, 
as an ebook in 2011.


Reviewed by 
Marianne Plumridge,
December 2014

There’s been a lot said since the end of the Apollo space program that NASA made going to the Moon about as exciting as taking a bus ride to Cleveland, or some such. That so much of the scary side of going into space, the mishaps, the politics, the almost-catastrophic incidents, near misses, personal conflicts and larger-than-life personalities, sometimes flawed, of the astronauts, etcetera were covered up and hidden behind a unified glossy NASA facade of carefully staged strength and heroic demeanour, and aspiring to a perfect flight record. And in spite of that drive for dedication, concentration, and the need for a strictly structured environment, the loss of the outwardly ‘human’ side of the astronauts left the space program appearing somewhat inflexible and humourless, and not something that the public could readily identify with or cosy up to. Or at least for several decades, it did. However, the latest breed of astronauts flying to and from the International Space Station (ISS), seem marginally more relaxed and have a wary sense of fun. One such example is Colonel Chris Hadfield, who played and sung David Bowie’s “Major Tom” on his guitar during his shift on the ISS to a rapt audience back on Earth. He was instantly personable and visual...someone the public could connect with, relate to. It was this persona and attitude that stuck in the back of my mind when I read Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN. Numerous films have dealt with the stranding of a human on Mars (or other worlds) over the past 60-70 years, beginning perhaps with the obvious ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, bypassing the 1980s campy TOTAL RECALL, including the ambitious millennial duplicity of MISSION TO MARS and RED PLANET, and more recently, portions of the excellent INTERSTELLAR, but none of them quite capture the personal nature or the deepest level of survival that THE MARTIAN does in its bold directness and deceptive simplicity. The vivacity of this book and its protagonist rivals even the best of the comparative Mars stories written in the last century.

THE MARTIAN begins with a freak dust storm that tests the strengths of the Ares 3 mission on Mars six days into its thirty day planet-bound operation and nearly wrecks the launch vehicle. Calling an abort, the Commander herds her six person crew toward their only means of escaping the red planet, the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) and via it to the orbiting mother-ship, Hermes. In the wildly gusting wind and dust, one crew member is skewered by a flying communications antenna and blown away with it. His biomedical readout abruptly flatlines. Commander Lewis searches and searches for his body but ultimately must surrender the bitter loss in favour of saving the rest of her crew. The MAV, barely standing by this stage, launches successfully and reaches Hermes in good time. Unable to go back, NASA orders the ship and crew home.

Back on Mars, amid the silence of the clearing dust and winds, astronaut Mark Watney doesn’t wake up dead. But that’s when his troubles really begin. The self-confessed least important member of the crew, Watney is an engineer with a passion for botany. The first guarantees he can fix almost anything technical that goes wrong, but the second is considered a bit useless on a world that doesn’t have much heat, no air, and less water. The combination of the two, plus a gritty determination not to sit on his backside and just die, and an offbeat sense of humour supply him with an enviable drive to survive. The computers left behind on the HAB, a finite number of supplies, and a bunch of other mechanical marvels, not to mention two hardy rovers and twelve humble potatoes make that happening so much easier. Right? Right? In the ensuing eighteen months alone on a barren planet there are times when Watney feels like a proverbial Sisyphus continuously rolling a huge rock up a mountain called Mars, and then getting pounded by it. His sense of humour is his one saving grace, well aside from his technical knowledge and experience, and his curiosity. He is described by the flight psychologist for the Ares missions as “good natured, usually cheerful, with a great sense of humour”. The more stress he’s put under, the more jokes he cracks to get everyone laughing. Even through the moments of sheer terror he experiences on Mars, Watney’s attitude while dictating his mission logs is a duel between self-deprecating commentator and smart-ass, and funny as all get out. It is a sympathetic realism that the reader can readily identify with. This story is less about ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars’, and more planetary marooned ‘McGyver’ on Mars.

THE MARTIAN has a snappy, fast paced narrative that hits the ground running from the opening paragraph and barely slows during the race to the climax. There’s a lot of ongoing science and scientific problem-solving, but the engaging personality of the story and protagonist never get bogged down. Some of it is even fun. Watney mostly knows what he is doing and works ideas to answer his needs, but there are the odd moments when even he feels like he’s a three year old unknowingly wielding a lit stick of dynamite...and not realising it until it goes boom. He occasionally gripes that Mars keeps trying to kill him, but Watney just keeps fighting back. There IS a way home, and he’s determined to be in the right place at the right time for that to happen, even if it requires him to cobble together an ad-hoc airtight Winnebago out of two rovers and extra HAB canvas and glue, and drive halfway across Mars to do it. By the time Watney works his first rustic contact with NASA, he’s a bit embarrassed to find that the whole of Earth has finally realised that he is alive after all and has been avidly watching him via satellite ever since. He wonders if there’s a way to go back and edit his daily logs and remove all of the mistakes and embarrassing bits. Meanwhile, he tries to pull his attitude up a bit and become once again the epitome of a NASA-trained ‘astronaut’: upstanding, strong, resilient, and goddamned heroic. Then again, he starts to wonder if contact with NASA is all it’s cracked up to be: there are whole committees suddenly telling him what to do and how to do it in excruciating detail and minutiae. The brief back and forth they have is rather amusing. The narrative segues almost seamlessly between Watney’s monolog and adventures on Mars and the building frenzy back home on Earth as NASA tries to find a way to save him. And even that path is a struggle against time, personalities, rebellious points of view and their owners, leaps of faith, and calamity and contretemps.

Catastrophe strikes silently and Watney is on his own again figuring out his survival in a race against time and a dwindling supply of potatoes. Yet now, he has a plan. It’s just a case of working the details, testing them, retesting them, suck down a deep breath and take that first step off into the unknown. All of his jerry-rigging, food scrounging, rover-prepping, and death-defying changes to materials are done and he is ready get his rescue sorted. But, after it all, on the eve of taking that step, he has to overcome a sudden fear of the next unknown. He asks: what would an Apollo astronaut do? The answer is classic Watney.  

“He’d drink three whiskey sours, drive his corvette to the launchpad, then fly to the moon in a command module smaller than my Rover. Man those guys were cool.”

As hard science science-fiction goes, this has to be one of the most engaging and exciting books about Mars that I have read in a long time. It’s currently being made into a movie with Matt Damon cast as the marooned Mark Watney. I’m really rather looking forward to seeing how it turns out. And if you happen to notice the soundtrack to the movie contains a lot of 70s disco music and snarky references to 70s tv shows, read the book and you’ll know why.



Seriously, this book is a 'keeper'. And I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did.
Cheers,

Marianne

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