Monday, April 08, 2013

"The Martian" - Great SF Book

This was a great find and practically a steal at 99 cents for a full-length SF Kindle e-book. Andy Weir's The Martian was recommended to me, probably because I had recently bought another Kindle SF title, Wool by Hugh Howie (also a great read from an "indie writer"). 

I tend to prefer so-called "hard" science fiction, stories that have at least some plausible claim to feasibility based on physics and technology, even if it's some pretty far-out physics and technology (I mostly don't like stories based on magic and fantasy, with occasional exceptions).  The Martian is definitely hard SF, but it's also a riveting story line. I read it in a couple of days. 

The story takes place on a NASA manned Mars mission (you immediately see the fiction here!), perhaps 30-40 years in the future. An ion-engine-powered (VASIMR actually) Mars transfer vehicle (the Hermes) has been built and used on two previous manned missions. These are short-term missions (about a month on the surface), using fairly extensive infrastructure delivered to the surface by multiple unmanned supply ships. Although not defined in detail, the mission architecture seems to borrow from Mars Direct and various NASA Mars Reference Missions, with in situ rocket fuel production, a fairly large "hab" to house the astronauts, large pressurized Mars rovers, and a separate MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) used to return the astronauts to the Mars-orbiting Hermes. These facilities all feature importantly in the story.

The six astronauts of Ares 3 run into trouble a few days after landing - an extra-powerful dust storm with winds that could damage the MAV, necessitating as hasty abort. As the crew of six makes its way to the MAV for emergency departure, Mark Watney is injured by flying debris. Telemetry indicates that he has died due to a large breach in his spacesuit. With the MAV about to topple in the wind, the rest of the crew barely escapes, leaving Mark's body behind.

Of course, Mark doesn't actually die (his suit was breached and he was injured, but some lucky circumstances allowed the suit to seal off the breach). The hab is still intact and stocked with food for six for a month-long mission, but all antennas have been lost, so Mark is unable to communicate with his crew mates or with Earth. Due to orbital mechanics and complex logistics, a rescue is unlikely even if he can reach someone, and even with rationing, the food supply will only give him a few months. But Mark figures he might as well try to survive, and as a clever and stubborn guy, as well as a botanist and mechanical engineer (every crew member is chosen for multiple skills), he manages to solve a steady stream of problems that Mars and his situation throw at him (none of them are aliens or demons as in some other Mars mission books and movies). 

I won't tell you more than that, except to say that with logbook entries as the format, I was skeptical that this could really hold my interest. But Mark (or should I say Andy) is quite funny, and his descriptions of his problem solving are extremely interesting (and detailed). This book made me think that humans on Mars will have a tough time, but that we will ultimately prevail in spite of the hostile environment. It also gave me a "real" use for the Mars Globe app that I have had on my iPod Touch and iPad for quite some time. I won't explain that any further - read it yourself! 


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