Book Review: The Martian

martianThis is yet another book that makes me want to write a review that simply says:

Loved it. Read this book.

But that’s not terribly helpful, is it? Unless you trust me so very much that you’re willing to take my word for it, just because. No? Okay, I’ll tell you just what I loved about this smart, funny, dramatic, and utterly entertaining book.

As you’d guess from the cover image, The Martian is the story of an astronaut. Mark Watney is part of a crew of astronauts participating in NASA’s third manned exploration of Mars. Six days into their mission, a massive dust storm prompts an evacuation of the planet, during which Mark is struck by flying debris and believed to be dead. With only minutes to spare before their emergency launch, the mission leader makes the tough call to leave Mark’s body and get the heck off the planet. The world mourns.

Surprise! Mark isn’t dead… but he may be soon. Mark is the sole human on all of Mars, left with the mission’s habitation structure and equipment, a 100-something day food supply, and no means of communication or rescue. The next mission to Mars won’t arrive for another four years. So what’s Mark to do? He has no intention of giving up, and sets about figuring just what it will take to breathe, drink water, and not starve to death in the years he’ll have to wait before he has a shot at returning to Earth.

When NASA finally realizes, thanks to satellite imagery, that they left a very much alive Mark behind, the entire world becomes obsessed with Mark’s survival, and it takes all the brains of NASA and then some, plus the determination of Mark’s crewmates, to figure out a rescue plan with any chance of success.

Ultimately, though, it’s all up to Mark and his incredible brain. As with all NASA missions, the crew members serve multiple roles, and Mark is the mission’s botanist/mechanical engineer. With his knowledge of botany, Mark figures out how to grow crops to sustain himself when the stored food runs out, and with his engineering skills, he’s able to jerry-rig solutions whenever equipment breaks — which is often.

You’d think a book in which the main character spends time calculating the square footage of arable soil needed to produce enough calories for survival or figuring out how to use rocket fuel to create water might get a little weighed down by science-speak… but you’d be dead wrong. I’ve never been more fascinating by geeky science talk. Stuff like this:

I can create the O2 easily enough. It takes twenty hours for the MAV fuel plant to fill its 10-liter tank with CO2. The oxygenator can turn it into the O2, then the atmospheric regulator will see the O2 content in the Hab is high, and pull it out of the air, storing it in the main O2 tanks. They’ll fill up, so I’ll have to transfer O2 over to the rovers’ tanks and even the space suit tanks as necessary.

The point is, the narration here is super-smart yet super engaging. Mark is in battle for survival — but he’s so extremely funny that even in his direst of straits, there’s plenty to make you laugh. Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, and half the fun is seeing how crazily creative Mark’s solutions are.

One thing I learned after reading The Martian is that author Andy Weir created his own programming in order to figure out things like trajectories and orbits, and his need to make sure that the science works results in a book that’s full of compelling and weird details — which, strangely, don’t weigh down the narrative, but instead let us feel like we’re right there next to Mark, trying to figure out how to rig a heat supply without blowing things up. (I loved Entertainment Weekly’s recent write-up about Andy Weir – check it out here.)

Bottom line? I loved this book. With never a dull moment, The Martian is a treat for the brain as well as providing plenty of laughs along with true suspense and a nail-biting battle for survival. Mark’s voice is what makes reading The Martian such a fun experience, so I’ll leave you with a few choice selections from the logs of astronaut Mark Watney:

If you asked every engineer at NASA what the worst scenario for the Hab was, they’d all answer “fire”. If you asked them what the result would be, they’d answer “death by fire.”

About the e-mails that come pouring in once the world realizes Mark is alive:

One of them was from my alma mater, the University of Chicago. They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially “colonized” it. So technically, I colonized Mars.

In your face, Neil Armstrong!

In other news, it’s seven sols till the harvest, and I still haven’t prepared. For starters, I need to make a hoe. Also, I need to make an outdoor shed for the potatoes. I can’t just pile them up outside. The next major storm would case the Great Martian Potato Migration.

The airlock’s on its side, and I can hear a steady hiss. So either it’s leaking or there are snakes in here. Either way, I’m in trouble.

If you at all enjoy reading about space exploration, scientific discoveries, or incredibly inventive men with senses of humor, read The Martian!


The details:

Title: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Publisher: Broadway Books
Publication date: 2014
Length: 369 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

A bookish sort of tribute to Neil Armstrong


I was sad to hear the news today about the passing of Neil Armstrong, a true American icon and hero. I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the US space program, from childhood — watching the moon landing on our grainy black-and-white TV — through adulthood, with tragedies and triumphs viewed on television and the internet, visits to air and space museums and the Kennedy Space Center, where we gawked at the lunar capsules and launch pads, and of course, since I’m me, with fact, figures, and fictions absorbed through the pages of books.

And so, I thought I’d give an overview of my own collection of space books — some old, some new — as a tribute to a man who inspired us all to look to the stars (and to practice faux moon jumping in our backyards when no one was looking).


The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (1979)

Tom Wolfe’s account of the early development of the US space program, focusing on the Mercury astronauts and what it meant to be the best, is a classic; a combination of history, social commentary, and sharply drawn wit. (I was amused to pull my copy off the shelf for the first time in years and see the hardcover price of $12.95. Ah, those were the days!)

Space by James Michener (1982)

As with all great Michener novels, Space is a heady mix of history and fiction, following the trajectory of space exploration from its post-war inception through the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, climaxing with a fictional Apollo mission to the dark side of the moon. I loved this book’s combination of historical fact and fictional drama, filled with characters of both national stature as well as the supporting players on the home front. It’s been years since I’ve read this book, but I vividly recall the emotional roller coaster that it took me on.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach (2010)

Mary Roach cracks me up, plain and simple. A science writer with the phrasing and timing of a stand-up comedian, I don’t think there’s a subject out there that Mary Roach couldn’t make hilarious. In Packing for Mars, she examines the day-to-day challenges of sending human beings into space, an environment our bodies are clearly not cut out for. She answers the question on everyone’s mind (just how do astronauts go to the bathroom?), explains the best options for surviving an elevator crash, and crams in a ton of useful knowledge, all the while being incredibly entertaining.

Two more from my to-read shelf, recent additions from various used book bonanzas of the past year:

Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon by Craig Nelson (2009)

I was so happy to find a copy of this one! From the Booklist review:

Using interviews, NASA oral histories, and declassified CIA material, Nelson has produced a magnificent, very readable account of the steps that led to the success of Apollo 11. In the 40 years since the first moon landing and the 52 years since Sputnik was launched, it isn’t always remembered now what an experiment the Apollo program was, nor that the space race was as much a military as a scientific campaign. The space program was launched using the knowledge of rockets available at the end of World War II and former Third Reich scientists working in both American and Soviet programs. When it came to sending men into orbit and beyond, routines and equipment had to be invented and tested in minute increments. Nelson’s descriptions take us back, showing the assorted teams and how they worked together. We meet the astronauts and find out why they were eager to take on this mission, and we also meet the hypercareful technicians, without whom neither men nor craft would have left the ground. Nelson shows, too, how the technology and the politics of the times interrelated. Leslie Fish, songwriter, summed it up perfectly, “To all the unknown heroes, sing out to every shore / What makes one step a giant leap is all the steps before.” Nelson brightly illuminates those steps.

Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut by Mike Mullane (2006)

After reading Mary Roach’s praise for this memoir, I knew I just had to get a copy. From Amazon:

In 1978, the first group of space shuttle astronauts was introduced to the world — twenty-nine men and six women who would carry NASA through the most tumultuous years of the space shuttle program. Among them was USAF Colonel Mike Mullane, who, in his memoir Riding Rockets,strips the heroic veneer from the astronaut corps and paints them as they are — human.

Mullane’s tales of arrested development among military flyboys working with feminist pioneers and post-doc scientists are sometimes bawdy, often comical, and always entertaining. He vividly portrays every aspect of the astronaut experience, from telling a female technician which urine-collection condom size is a fit to hearing “Taps” played over a friend’s grave. He is also brutally honest in his criticism of a NASA leadership whose bungling would precipitate the Challenger disaster — killing four members of his group. A hilarious, heartfelt story of life in all its fateful uncertainty, Riding Rockets will resonate long after the call of “Wheel stop.”

I owe a great deal of my life-long fascination with the space program to my early memories of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon.

RIP, Neil Armstrong, and thank you.