Recently, Mr. A.M.B. read a book that made him laugh so much that I worried he would spray tea all over his Kindle as he tried to drink from his new Jane Austen mug while reading. That book turned out to be Andy Weir’s The Martian, a self-publishing success story of the best kind.
As my husband says in this review:
If you enjoyed chemistry class (I am darn proud of winning my local Chemistry Olympiad in 9th grade), consider astrophysics to be as beautiful as art, and never quite gave up your dreams of being an astronaut, you’ll love The Martian and the intricate scientific problem-solving at the heart of the plot.
For more on The Martian and why you must keep shaving (that is, if you have facial hair), see below.
Mr. AMB’s Review of The Martian:
It was a week before Christmas and, naturally, I hadn’t done most of my shopping, because the logistics wizards at Amazon had promised me that I could order as late as December 22nd and still have my gifts arrive on time. So, that weekend, I perused various gift guides on some of my favorite blogs, and one book kept popping up: The Martian by Andy Weir. The e-book was $3.00, and thus an easy early Christmas gift to myself.
The Martian is about an astronaut in the near future who is stranded on Mars when his crew mistakenly believes he has died in the middle of a severe sandstorm that threatens to kill them all. There are two problems for our lone spaceman. First, Mars happens to be inhospitable to all forms of life. Second, Mars is awfully far away; even once NASA realizes he’s still alive, sending anything to Mars is a technological feat bordering on miraculous, and it’ll take months to get there. The poor soul will thus need to put on his thinking cap if he wants to make it home.
The book is “hard” science fiction, which means that it is “characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy or technical detail, or on both.” The Space Review approves:“What sets The Martian apart is less its characters, though, than its technical rigor. The Martian is very much hard science fiction, with science and technology firmly rooted in reality.” Tor.com, in contrast, complains: “far too much of [Weir’s homework] is on display, most notably in the way Mark describes his days—days spent brainstorming and problem-solving, primarily—the end result of which is a plot bogged down in often tedious technical detail.”
If you’re looking for an intergalactic battle between space dragons and sentient robots, look elsewhere. If you enjoyed chemistry class (I am darn proud of winning my local Chemistry Olympiad in 9th grade), consider astrophysics* to be as beautiful as art, and never quite gave up your dreams of being an astronaut, you’ll love The Martian and the intricate scientific problem-solving at the heart of the plot.
Critically, Weir successfully follows Pixar’s advice on plot development: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” There’s never a moment when you feel like he’s been saved by deus ex machina.
The Martian is also a self-publishing success story. Weir originally published it in 2012 in installments online, free of charge, then tried shopping it to publishers with no success. Readers craved an ebook copy, so he put it on Amazon at the lowest price — $0.99 — where readers devoured it. An imprint of Random House picked it up, and now it’s on Amazon for a mere $3.00. As A.M.B. has explained, that low price makes it an easy purchase for anyone who has any interest at all in the book, and correspondingly it has become a best-seller. Right now it’s #35 on the Kindle Store list, forty places above Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Goldfinch.
There is one criticism raised by others than I think needs to be addressed. The Martian never delves into the rather severe psychological distress that would presumably inflict anyone marooned on a barren planet where their day-to-day living is entirely dependent on the workings of several complicated pieces of equipment, and where their long-term survival is dubious given the lack of any sustainable means of food supply. Over at Ars Technica, Weir explains that this was an intentional choice:
“I’ll give you a sideways answer to that,” he said. “There are a bunch of severe psychological effects that would happen to someone being isolated for almost two years. And also the anxiety and stress of being on the verge of death from various problems for so long—most people would not be able to handle that. The loneliness, the isolation, the anxiety, and stress—I mean, it would take an enormous psychological toll. And I didn’t deal with any of that. I just said like, ‘Nope, that’s not how Mark Watney rolls.’ So he has almost superhuman ability to deal with stress and solitude.
“And the reason I did that was because I didn’t want the book to be a deep character study of crippling loneliness and depression—that’s not what I wanted! So the biggest challenge were the psychological aspects, and I just didn’t address them and I hope the reader doesn’t notice.”
But I don’t think Weir needs to give a sideways answer. Consider this passage from the book:
I’ve fallen into a routine. Every morning I wake up at dawn. First thing I do is check oxygen and CO2 levels. Then I eat a breakfast pack and drink a cup of water. After that, I brush my teeth, using as little water as possible, and shave with an electric razor.
At first blush, this seems ridiculous. Why shave every morning?
Consider this article from Smithsonian Magazine about Henry Morton Stanley, one of the most determined explorers of the 19th century:
Imagine, for a moment, that you are Stanley early one morning. You emerge from your tent in the Ituri rain forest. It’s dark. It has been dark for months. Your stomach, long since ruined by parasites, recurrent diseases and massive doses of quinine and other medicines, is in even worse shape than usual. You and your men have been reduced to eating berries, roots, fungi, grubs, caterpillars, ants and slugs—when you’re lucky enough to find them. Dozens of people were so crippled—from hunger, disease, injuries and festering sores—that they had to be left behind at a spot in the forest grimly referred to as Starvation Camp. You’ve taken the healthier ones ahead to look for food, but they’ve been dropping dead along the way, and there’s still no food to be found. But as of this morning, you’re still not dead. Now that you’ve arisen, what do you do?
For Stanley, this was an easy decision: shave. As his wife, Dorothy Tennant, whom he married in 1890, would later recall: “He had often told me that, on his various expeditions, he had made it a rule, always to shave carefully. In the Great Forest, in ‘Starvation Camp,’ on the mornings of battle, he had never neglected this custom, however great the difficulty.”
As the article continues, “You might think the energy spent shaving in the jungle would be better devoted to looking for food. But Stanley’s belief in the link between external order and inner self-discipline has been confirmed recently in studies.” The Martian’s strict adherence to routine — a trait no doubt refined in all astronauts, who train and drill for months on every issue — and all that time spent “brainstorming and problem-solving” would have kept him from falling too deeply into the pit of existential despair.
As Adm. William H. McRaven, ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, told a graduating class earlier this year: “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”
* Talking about “astrophysics” for a minute, one of my proudest moments as a science-nerd-father came when I was reading a book by an astrophysicist to one of my then-six year twins (she’s now seven). She asked, “what’s an astrophysicist?” I thought for a minute and gave what I thought was a perfect, incontestable answer: “someone who studies how the stars move.” She instantly shot back: “But the stars don’t move, the Earth turns below them.” Oh, my little Galileo. Obviously, the answer is a bit more complicated than that, but I told her she was right, and we kept on reading.