Tag Archives: Space

On Andy Weir’s “The Martian”

24 Mar

The Martian Book Cover

The Martian [2013] by Andy Weir

There are a lot of different types of survivors: there’s the Bear Grylls survivor who “survives” in the “wild” with a full TV crew and then books a hotel room off-screen; there’s the Donner Party survivor who makes it because she overcame some serious taboos; there’s the Tom “Chuck Noland” Hanks survivor who may go a tad crazy but ends up losing weight and looking really good after hanging out with a volleyball for four years; and then there’s Mark Watney, astronaut-botanist extraordinaire and the hero of Andy Weir’s debut novel that will have you canceling your one-way ticket to Mars. In The Martian, Mark Watney is the only human being on an unforgiving, primarily dead planet and must use every ounce of his human ingenuity and resilience to find a way to survive with limited amounts of Earth’s luxuries. Nothing fancy, you know. Just the usual food, water, and air. Silly stuff like that.

In the not-to-distant future, NASA succeeds in landing (and returning!) several manned missions to Mars. It’s a dream that isn’t too far away in our own reality, so the scenario Weir conceives in The Martian isn’t as alien as we once thought in the Mars craze of the mid-20th century. Instead, Weir creates an extremely plausible and relentlessly logical story of one person’s struggle for survival on the withered Red Planet. Mark Watney is the lowest rank on a totem pole filled with superlatively qualified astronauts in the Ares 3 mission to Mars. He and the crew only just landed on Mars to begin their research mission when a lethal sandstorm forces them to abandon their base and escape back to the refuge of space. The abort occurs only six Mars days, or “sol,” into their mission, and in the chaos of their escape, the team leaves Watney behind, thinking him a victim to the storm. And that’s the end of the story.

Mars is, as it turns out, not that far away, but I'll let the Mark Watney's of the world visit before I ever do. (Photo from "NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center")

Mars is, as it turns out, not that far away, but I’ll let the Mark Watney’s of the world visit before I ever do. (Photo from “NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center“)

Or so the Ares 3 team thinks as they speed back toward Earth while grieving for their lost crew member and friend. But Watney is alive–for now–and must use his training and extraordinary will to survive to stay one small step ahead of a harsh environment that wants nothing more than to see him dead. While Watney huddles inside the temporary shelter of the Ares mission’s Hub trying to cultivate potatoes in DIY farm soil (I’ll give you a hint straight from Watney’s mouth: “My asshole is doing as much to keep me alive as my brain.”), Mission Control in Houston finally catches on that their missing astronaut miraculously survived. In a mad race against time, NASA personnel try to solve the ultimate puzzle of Watney’s survival. Every time they solve for one problem, the unforgiving Martian environment throws them another life-threatening situation.

Watney’s wit keeps him alive as much as his intelligence (or his asshole, as he claims). He keeps his indomitable spirits high through his wisecracks and never seems to let his bleak surroundings affect his mood, so, while his sarcastic remarks certainly makes for a more entertaining read, I never feared that Watney would fail in his quest. In fact, Weir never so much as mentions the excruciating loneliness Watney must have been feeling. At worst, Watney is bored, but hundreds of days pass without any kind of human interaction, and I had a hard time believing Watney never made his own little Wilson somewhere in the Hab. I understand that reading about a dude being bored might be a dampener on an otherwise nonstop, nerve-wracking plot, but Weir missed an opportunity to investigate the true horror of a human sans humanity, of someone more utterly and definitely alone than any human being has ever been. Instead, Weir sweeps the surreal nature of these circumstances under the rug that is Watney’s sardonic humor.

Watney’s humor helps him keep his sanity, but his extraordinary resourcefulness keeps him alive, and I tried my darndest not to get distracted by some of the contrivances of the blog format Weir uses to tell Watney’s side of the story, or by the fact that I pretty much watched this whole situation play out in Ron Howard’s 1995 Apollo 13 and the fact that we’re going to be watching the Ridley Scott version this November. I still tore through the book in less than two days, and I am still going to watch the film adaptation, and I’m still never, never, ever going to Mars.

Even billions of dollars of technology can't protect Mark Watney from the elements out to kill him at every turn. (Photo from "NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center")

Billions of dollars of technology alone can’t protect Mark Watney from the elements out to kill him at every turn. (Photo from “NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center“)

Read It: The Martian is a story of survival before it’s sci-fi. It is a thrilling, fast-paced, quick-talking adventure story that just happens to take place on the surface of Mars. I say this to encourage all you genre-haters to take off your hate hats and pick up this book. There may be a few sciency type words and concepts buried under all the action, but I found that skimming those and pretending I remembered AP plant biology worked just fine. Andy Weir writes a captivating story that has already made him a name as a great new author to watch.

Don’t Read It: Do you have high blood pressure? Has a doctor recently told you to avoid stressful activities? Listen to your doctor! The Martian is the story of an astronaut in constant peril. Reading this is like watching a five-hour montage of just the climaxes of every MacGyver episode and you don’t get to see the resolution until the final eight seconds.

Similar Books: Tales of survival have always stressed me out, so I mostly steer clear of them, but I recently tackled Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Seathe nonfiction retelling of the disaster that inspired Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick. Philbrick collects information from two survivors’ accounts as well as countless documents from the era to create a thrilling history of the human will to survive even in the face of impossible odds. Weir’s The Martian was also combination of Apollo 13 and Cast Away. There must have been a Tom Hanks marathon on TBS or something when Weir was brainstorming, not that that’s a bad thing.

Andy Weir (Photo from Wikipedia)

A photo of Andy Weir taking a photo. Weirception. (Photo from Wikipedia)

On Ann Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice” (Imperial Radch, #1)

30 Apr
Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie's debut novel, is the first in a long (*crosses fingers*), robust Radch series.

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie’s debut novel, is the first in the hopefully long (*crosses fingers*), robust (*crosses toes*) Imperial Radch series.

Sci-fiction/fantasy is a massive genre that seems to be picking up steam in today’s media world. With the reboot of Star Trek movies and the soon-to-be rebooted Star Wars movies dragging viewers to the theaters, and HBO’s Game of Thrones conning normal folk into reading multi-book high fantasy series, nerdiness has never been sexier. Now, new blood and a wider audience is quickly transforming an arguably tired old boys’ club into a much more competitive and varied genre. One of the most exciting new, unique, powerful, intelligent authors on the scene is Ann Leckie, author of debut novel Ancillary Justice.

Breq, the novel’s narrator, lands on a frozen planet so remote that it’s beyond the reaches of the Imperial Radch. For Breq, this planet holds the key to her 19-year quest for revenge. Rage and sorrow fuel her, but this is her last chance, and she’s close to giving up. Leckie begins her novel with a captivating, barren environment and the pained voice of her protagonist who, as readers learn through the developing story, is not as human as she seems at first glance. Breq is the sole surviving “ancillary” of a ship’s artificial intelligence. Once part of a vast network of AI-possessed human bodies, Breq had the knowledge and experience of the 2,000-year-old ship Justice of Toren. An unthinkable betrayal leaves her with only one body left–virtually blind, deaf, and stunted. As Breq’s narration weaves through the centuries of Justice of Toren’s past, Leckie fleshes out a fascinatingly singular character who challenges what we know about intelligence, self, and humanity.

Justice of Toren is more than your standard robot fare. She embodies multiple selves, feels affection, regret, and guilt, and she doesn't stop changing and adapting through her long lifespan.

Justice of Toren, particularly Breq, is more than your standard robot fare. She embodies multiple selves, feels affection, regret, and guilt, and she doesn’t stop changing or adapting through her long lifespan.

Ancillary Justice employs–in more than just one way–my favorite technique in sci-fi/fantasy: making the familiar unfamiliar. Justice of Toren’s multifaceted sense of self mimics the idea of cultural identity, meaning Breq’s separation from herself/selves represents the soul-crushing loneliness of something akin to genocide, not to mention the tragedy of losing years of collective knowledge and memory. In a similar fashion, Leckie uses the vast entity of the Radch to reflect on humanity’s real history of imperialism. As I read descriptions of Radchaai “annexations” of entire planets and their rapid, ruthless but efficient spread across the galaxy, I couldn’t help thinking of Britain’s systematic drive toward world domination back in the olden days. Breq tells us that the word “Radch” translates literally to “civilization,” and “Radchaai” to “civilized.” Her memories don’t just address the motivation for her vengeance, but also her observations of the inherent dangers and bigotries of an imperialistic nation. AJ is, as far as I’m concerned (and, granted, I’m still a little starstruck), the quintessential sci-fi novel: a story line and setting that builds a creative, unfamiliar universe as a mirror to our small but infinitely complex lives.

The Radch shows numerous similarities to Britain's crazy empire days, from the aristocratic social structure to the presumptuous reeducation of indigenous peoples.

The Radch shows numerous similarities to Britain’s crazy empire days, from the aristocratic social structure to the presumptuous attempts at reeducating of indigenous peoples of propriety and civilization.

Read it if … you enjoy a thoughtful sci-fi novel. Not everyone does, and not every mood calls for discourse on socioeconomic inequalities or gender identity or the inherent human nature of human beings’ humanity. Leckie’s universe is gorgeously dark but also gorgeously unique, not to mention entertaining. So what if reading this novel takes slightly more energy than reading the Star Wars expanded universe? You will still love every minute of it.

Don’t read it if … you’re looking for a shoot-’em-up novel. Don’t be deceived by the pretty spaceships on the book cover. If you want non-stop action and nothing but the tinkling music of lasers interrupted only by snarky one-liners, this is not the droid you’re looking for. (Although, there was laughter and a couple of heart-racing scenes in AJ that I thought might make me cry.)

This book is like … the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro. A weird comparison, I know, but stick with me here. Ishiguro is one of my favorite writers of the pining, guilt-ridden, introspective narrator. Artist of the Floating World and Remains of the Day exemplify narrators much like Breq, narrators who must live with their own self-loathing and fear as their closest companions. Granted, Leckie uses more guns and swear words, but the parallel is present and makes me love Ancillary Justice that much more.

Expectations are set high, Ann Leckie. Let's see what else comes out of that beautiful brain of yours.

Expectations are set high, Ann Leckie. Let’s see what else comes out of that beautiful brain of yours.