October 24, 2015 § 1 Comment
A manned mission to Mars goes badly wrong: a storm forces the team to abort the mission, and in the melee, one member of the crew is left behind on the planet. All alone in the desert world, he figures out how to survive and manages to stay alive for the 543 Martian days that it takes for NASA to come and get him. All he has for company are his NASA training, his educational grounding in botany and mechanical engineering, his innate resourcefulness, his sense of humor, several million taxpayer dollars worth of NASA equipment, and for at least some of the time, the advice of the best minds in the solar system at his disposal.
The Martian is not Science Fiction: it is Engineering Fiction. In fact, it is Engineering Porn. Science is about hypothesis and speculation, and about at least a modicum of philosophical reflection about the strange symmetrical beauty of scientific truth. This book, on the contrary, consists of non-stop banter about electrolysis, excreta, radioactivity, the chemical and physical properties of gases, batteries, fuel, nuts, bolts, urine, automobiles, the Morse Code, potatoes, crappy movies and music, a copious amount of guesswork and estimation, and the total absence of romance: it sounds exactly like a couple of years in the life of a student of engineering. I bet the book has left the freshman batch of IIT Madras (my alma mater) quivering gently, like excited electrons simultaneously exploring every possible option afforded them by the Hund’s Rule of Maximum Multiplicity .
Andy Weir does a reasonably competent job of keeping the reader in some kind of suspense: though I don’t think anyone would have had doubts about the final happy ending. I don’t think engineers are too heavily into tragedy and emotion: after all that planning and hard work, failure would simply annoy them. But even though Weir talks about the whole world coming together to pray and work for this one man’s rescue and return to his family, the denouement left no lumps in my throat: you can’t jam rational problem solving and the ineffable brotherhood of man in the same sentence (although I just did)
No, there’s just one inspiring story in all this, and it comes right AFTER the end of the book, in an autobiographical essay by the author, and I quote:
I originally wrote the Martian as a free serial novel, posting one chapter at a time to my website. Thanks to my previous attempts at writing, I had a small but loyal following of friends who read each chapter as I finished it. this turned out to be an amazing process. I got tons of feedback as the story progressed, and I fine-tuned the novel as I went along.
Eventually, my website readers started bugging me to put the book up on Amazon so they could read it on their Kindles. So I formatted the book, slapped a public-domain photo of Mars on the cover, and tossed it up there. I priced it at 99 cents because Amazon wouldn’t let me make it free permanently.
After that, things got a little crazy. Next thing I knew, it was one of Amazon’s top five sci-fi bestsellers, and tens of thousands of people ha downloaded it. Then a literary agent and publishers came knocking, and movie studios started bidding on the film rights. And ultimately, in one of the more surreal moments of my life, I found myself looking at my name on the New York Times bestseller list.
Now that’s a spectacular feel-good story for the ages!