Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Martian: Old Fashioned, Hard SF

I first heard about Andy Weir's SF novel The Martian because its publishing history is pretty much a dream given form (a shining beacon in space?) for someone like me:
In 2009, Weir started posting the story chapter by chapter on his personal blog where anyone could read it for free. The early version of his self-published book attracted a lot of science-minded readers, and they offered feedback.

Weir is a space nerd, but he says chemistry is not his area of expertise.

"Chemists actually pointed out some problems in early drafts," Weir said. He was able to go back and correct some of the chemistry that's crucial for Watney's survival.

Word of the book spread, and readers started asking for an e-reader copy. So Weir made all the individual chapters available in one file. Some had trouble downloading it though, so Weir put it on Amazon via Kindle Direct Publishing.

That's when the floodgates opened. More people downloaded the 99-cent Amazon version than had ever downloaded the free version, Weir said, and readers started leaving positive reviews on Amazon. In just a few months it skyrocketed to the top of Amazon's best-selling science fiction list.
So a book agent got in touch with Weir. Shortly after that, the publishing company Random House called — it wanted to publish a hardcover.

Four days later, Hollywood called for the movie rights, Weir said.

So yes, he scored a book contract and a movie contract in the same week — both in the low to mid six figures, The Washington Post reports.

"In fact, it was such a sudden launch into the big leagues that I literally had a difficult time believing it," Weir said in an interview on his site. "I actually worried it could all be an elaborate scam. So I guess that was my first reaction: "Is this really happening?'"
Up until college, Science Fiction made up a significant portion of my reading diet, and the classic "hard SF" in which engineering and science problems are used to drive plot and action was one of the sub genres I enjoyed most. There's always a certain fascination to problem solver stories, and while hard SF is sometimes bashed within the field as having shallower characterization, I tended to think that authors were often better at portraying fairly "ordinary" people trying to solve exotic engineering problems than successfully imagining exotic character and cultural problems in far flung futures.

In the end, I mostly walked away from the SF/F genre entirely. Most of what I read now is mainstream or historical fiction, but I retain an affection for science fiction even though I don't keep up.

When I picked up a copy of The Martian at the library, I ended up reading the whole thing in a day. It was a blast. No, the characterization is not deep. But the thing is just such a fast paced and fun problem solving yarn that you can't hold that against it. Even if you are not yourself interested in the details of how to make a near future expedition to Mars, the wise cracking main character and his constant struggle to survive will pull you in.

The novel opens as follows:

I'm pretty much fucked.

That's my considered opinion.


Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it's turned into a nightmare.

I don't even know who'll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.

For the record... I didn't die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can't blame them. Maybe there'll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, "Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars."

And it'll be right, probably. 'Cause I'll surely die here. Just not on Sol 6 when everyone thinks I did.

Let's see... where do I begin?
There you have it: smart aleck, occasionally profane, but a fun character voice, and a person who is stuck in a terrible predicament. On the sixth day of a manned visit to Mars in the near future, the crew has to cut short their planned fifty day stay and make an emergency evacuation when an unexpectedly heavy sandstorm endangers their habitat. In the process of the evacuation, astronaut Mark Watney is struck by a falling antenna, knocked off a precipice, and his suit ceases to show life signs. The rest of the crew has to go ahead and make the evacuation without retrieving his body.

Except that he isn't dead. The debris that punctured his suit destroyed the life signs monitor, but his blood from the injury froze around the puncture, closing the leak and allowing him to still have oxygen to breath until he regains consciousness. By the time that happens, however, he is the only person left on Mars, with no working communications equipment and no hope of rescue until the next mission arrives in about four years.

The movie is coming out in October, and I'm hoping it will be as fun as the book. In the mean time, I might pick up a copy so I can read it again.


Anonymous said...

I loved that book. Caught it on Kindle a couple years ago, and read the whole thing in three days. (I don't get as much reading time as I used to.)

The science is solid, but as you note it's Watney's character that makes the book. He is persistent, clever, and funny. I think Matt Damon can do him justice.

Anonymous said...

I got a deal on the Audible audio book version, and my husband and I listened to it on vacation. We loved it! My son the engineer is reading it now. As you say, good, old-fashioned hard SF. We plan to see the movie--I just hope the filmmakers don't ruin it!

Not a wine critic said...

XKCD had the best review of this book ever:

Darwin said...

Heh. I love Apollo 13. Best movie about space (SF or historical) that's been made IMHO.

Though I'd give The Martian credit for being kind of like the whole movie, not just that scene.