The Martian

On the plane from Denpasar to Singapore, I read The Martian, a sci-fi update of Robinson Crusoe, where an astronaut on a mission to Mars is stranded and has to find a way to survive for years, utterly alone.

It involves lots of human waste, and potatoes.

It’s a few hours’ read, but in that time the astronaut, Mark Watney, has to weather setback after setback. (Spoiler alert: they don’t kill him. If they did, the book would be much shorter – though if he hadn’t suffered these setbacks, the book would also be a lot shorter.)

Most of the book is what appears to be hard science (I’m not a specialist in these things, so I can’t judge if it really is it not) but there’s plenty of interesting problems to surmount, mostly around trying to survive in an arid, practically airless environment with no resources apart from bits of a spaceship and a lot of ingenuity.

At some points, the constant problems begin to be simply absurd. How can Watney have so much bad luck, yet survive it all? I felt like yelling “come on Fate, there’s no need to be such a dick” but this is frowned upon in the economy class seating of most commercial airliners. Plus, as mentioned earlier, that would curtail the book.

What works less well are the scenes where it cuts away from Watney to goings-on on Earth, as NASA try to figure out how to rescue him. There’s less hard science here and more valiant/intelligent/overworked scientists from Central Casting, bereft of characterisation, dialogue and so forth. I suppose it’s meant to be a counterpoint to the utterly isolated Martian, to add variety or some human interest, but mostly it feels like distraction from what we want to read about: a bloke cannibalising the Pathfinder probe to bodge together a communications system back to home.

It’s quite appropriate that I should have been reading this, after Friday’s fun and games, as it’s really a galactic scale bit of blaggery. Well, at least solar-system-sized, but what’s a nice adjective for that?

Whether I’m inspired to write a homage, where a man is trapped in an airplane toilet for two years with nothing but his wits and a supply of paper towels to sustain him, is another thing altogether.

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