Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Review: The Martian

The Martian The Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nothing could be more old-school, as far as writing a science fiction novel is concerned, than taking "clever engineer solves problems" as your premise. It wasn't new when Hugo Gernsback did it (very boringly) with Ralph 124C41+ in 1911, and it remained a staple well into the 1960s and beyond.

And if you're going to go old-school, you need to do it really well.

The Martian is a "clever engineer solves problems" story, and it's done really well.

I didn't just have to take other people's word that this would be the case. Thanks to David Morgan-Mar and his Irregular Webcomic, I knew about Andy Weir and his Casey and Andy webcomic, so I knew he was funny. I'd also read the webcomic he did after that one, so I knew that he could tell a story as well as pull off a gag. I therefore went in thinking, "He might just be able to pull 'clever engineer' off and still make it a good story with plenty of humour."

At one point, it put me in mind of Arthur C. Clark's A Fall of Moondust , which (judging by the back matter) the author has almost certainly read. Both involve people trapped off Earth after an accident, having to contend with the physics (etc.) of an unfamiliar environment in order to survive and be rescued. Both stories manage to make it at least as much about the people as about the science, which for me, and for most people, is important in a hard-SF story. I don't just want a tour of the clever engineering science museum.

I did occasionally find the science a touch dull, but the voice of Mark Watney, the wisecracking, indomitable narrator of most of the book, rescues it with laugh-out-loud moments. There's also genuine tension and suspense; it's an emotional journey, which I'm sure is the key to the book's popularity.

It misses out on my rare "well-edited" accolade for one reason: the author's habit of combining a question mark and an exclamation mark at the end of the same sentence. Other than that, few and minor errors meant a smooth, enjoyable reading experience.

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