Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly
The Martian by Andy Weir
Lately, I’ve been intrigued with this movie, Gravity that came out last fall in the States. As I wasn’t home at all during the time it was in theaters and I don’t want to pay $20 to watch it on Amazon, I’m still mostly in the dark about it. But, the reviews I read when it was out caught my attention and I am secretly hoping it will be a viewing choice on the airline when I head home in late May. With that spark of interest in outer space ignited, I was excited when I saw The Martian listed on the best books of the week on Huffington Post. (That weekly article costs me *way* too much money!) I figured this novel could tide me over until I have a chance to watch Ms. Bullock and Mr. Clooney do their thing on the eight-inch seat back screen provided by United.
Andy Weir does not disappoint! I was drawn in from the very start, sliding through pages quickly. Mark Watney, a NASA-trained astronaut, was a part of a group of scientists who were going to explore Mars for 31 sols (a bit longer than an Earth day) and then head back to our little third rock from the sun. But, through a series of unfortunate and unlucky events, he gets left behind when his colleagues are forced to call their mission, 25 sols short of their intended stay. What Watney does have going for him is those first six sols, when the team had time to establish their camp, giving him at least a bare minimal chance at survival; although what he has to survive for is quickly called into question. Is it really just prolonging the inevitable?
While I’ve read reviews that said they didn’t like the sometimes chatty tone of Watney’s diary, I thought it created a nice balance to the heavy science jargon and mathematical equations that permeate much of the tale of attempted survival. Watney is a likeable character, stuck in a horrible situation. Throughout the narrative though, it felt realistic. He doesn’t give into the overwhelming pressure put upon him and become a crumpled mass of helplessness, but his humanity shows as he does crack at times. His humor is what keeps him sane throughout the ordeal.
As would be expected of a book based on NASA and space flight, science and math play a heavy roll in the narrative. There were times I felt exhausted by the technicalities of space travel, feeling like an 11th grader stuck back in Mr. Tilsey’s chemistry class, desperately trying to balance equations, but not really understanding what I was doing. The technical parts of The Martian had that same feel for me. I would read them and get through them, but I couldn’t have summarized them with any accuracy. But, luckily for the less than scientifically-minded readers like myself, it doesn’t distractingly take away from the narrative. (Although, I am sure for those who can follow these details, the book has a whole different level of interest that I just couldn’t tap into.)
On a personal level, I love that the earth-side of this book partially takes place in northern Gansu province, in the town of Jianquan, where China’s space program is located. I’ve had a couple of chances to visit there, spending two weeks with my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers doing a summer outreach program. It was incredible to see this off-the-map town featured so heavily in an American novel.
When I get through a book, cover to cover, in just two days (work days at that!), it must be a good read! Even with just a few pages left, I wasn’t ready to bet money on the outcome and still feel like it could easily have ended differently, depending on the whims of the author when he wrote those final stages. The only thing holding Andy Weir’s book from a full five shells is the incredibly scientific passages that had me skimming in search of more action. The Martian earns a very solid: