Sunday, 28 February 2016

Review of Andy Weir's "The Martian"

I  finished Andy Weir’s The Martian two weeks ago. My boss had suggested it to me  around the time when water was found on Mars . I started reading it back in the December, 2015. I was on Chapter 14 when my Kindle stopped working. It died. The lower half of the screen went blank. I did not want to buy the book. So I did not continue. Then, a few days ago, a miracle happened.  

On   last Friday, another boss of mine—not the one who suggested me to read Weir's book—gifted me a brand new Kindle with a rock solid case. The first book I transferred to the device after returning to my room after work was The Martian. I did it not because I had fallen in love with the story when I was reading the book the first time, but more out of a duty to leave no  books unfinished this year.  I should say that I barely finished it. 

When I was a child, I used to dream of going to Mars alone. I am sure many children today harbour the same dream. Weir’s book is probably written for them. It is the story of a six astronauts—five from the U.S. and one from Germany—who go to Mars for research but have to abandon their Martian station because of an unusually fierce storm. On their way back to the ship, they lose a crew member,  Mark Watney. They think Watney is killed and will not learn about his being alive until they are half-way between Mars and the earth. 

Watney wakes up with some injured ribs or bones and starts thinking of some way to get back to the earth. But first, he has to tell the people on earth that he is alive. Something reminds him of an old Mars research rover a few tens of kilometres from where he is stranded. He jumps into the Mars cars his teammates had left behind, heads to Pathfinder (the research rover), salvages a radio and sends a signal to earth. The signal is received successfully because the researchers at NASA already know that he is  alive. 

After captain Lewis has left the Martian station, NASA takes some satellite images of the place. And in one of them, an observer  finds  signs of life. She tells others. So the decision makers at NASA came toknow that Watney is alive. They see him preparing for a trip to pathfinder and figure out that he will  contact them soon. NASA scrambles a team of people to ready the receiving equipment 

Once a communication link is set up, NASA starts working on a rescue plan.  Their plan is simple: Send a rocket full of supplies to Mars and so that Watney can survive until the next team of astronauts lands on the planet. At the same time, it is decided not to tell Lewis—the camp of Watney's team who took the decision to left him behind—and his crew about Watney. So the remaining group of five researchers on their way back to earth keep on believing W is dead.

The rocket launch fails. NASA contacts the China Space Research Administration. CSNA offers help by launching their own rocket to Mars. But someone at NASA comes up with another  plan. 

The plan is to tell the surviving crew that Watney is alive, send the CSNA rocket to the alive crew  and ask the crew if they can accept the supplies, take a U-turn and bring Watney back to earth. The crew members agree. But the problems do not end here. 

The remaining astronauts cannot land on Mars (their ship is not designed for landing on planets). The only way to rescue Watney is to meet him in the Martian orbit, which means  that Watney will have to launch himself in space. Thankfully, there is a spare rocket on Mars. Too many coincidences. Anyway. Although the managers at NASA consider the plan risky, they somehow agree to it. 

Then, the CSNA rocket supplies the remaining astronauts with a good amount of food and other supplies. Watney sits into his Martian car and reaches the rocket, which launches off and meets the remaining astronauts’ ship near Mars. The story ends. It was a happy ending. 

The story is good. But the writing is not. Andy Weir seems to have a penchant for cuss words. He sprinkles them liberally everywhere in the book. Then he explains some usual things in detail, but glosses over others. Unless you are profoundly interested in  manned space research, you may find it hard to figure out some things. For instance, I still only have a vague idea of how airlocks work. So many sections where they play a vital role were not clear to me. It was also unclear to me how can the drill be short circuited. And there were several other things that I did not understand. 

I confess I am not a geek. My knowledge is limited to what comes from dabbling into languages, learning how to program in C++ and reading literature on weekends. When I read the Weir's novel, I realized how much I do not know about science. It was a reality-check. And it is probably time I should spend sometime on maths, physics and biology. Also come computer science. I digress. 

If I were to review Weir’s book, I would say it is poorly written hard SF with a lot of adventure-boy-crazy-fantasies thrown in. I think Weir’s book is like 50 Shades of Hard SF. I trudged through the book. So I am glad that it is finished. I will never read it again. Hard SF by Robert L Forward, Liu Cixin, Arthur C Clarke and Ted Chiang is well-written and more fun to read. I think I will stick to them for some more time.