Saturday, June 20, 2015

Book Review: The Martian

This is not "some of the best" but The Best hard science fiction I have read in decades.  The technology and events are all just outside our current capabilities, but clearly within our reach.  As in "three year advanced development project away" within our reach.  There are no cute robots, rebellious computers, funky aliens, or space wizards to be found here.  Instead, this is a book populated by steely-eyed missile men – of both the X and Y chromosome persuasion – who deal with cascading failures and sleep depravation to get a stranded astronaut home from Mars.  Nobody quits, ever.  Nobody has plot-shaking emotional outbursts.  (A few heated discussions and a few moments of quiet private weeping, sure, but they're over soon and nobody dwells on them.)  Hard decisions are made, engineering is done, corners are cut, bad jokes are cracked.  A bunch of shit breaks.  Everything here could actually happen, to the best of our present knowledge.  And in the end, ... well I won't say.

The plot is very simple.  If you've watched the trailer for the upcoming movie, you pretty well have the whole thing right there.  Yes, it is a simple plot, simple like chess: easy to get the overview, but actually playing a tough game through to the end is the hard work and the joy of the entire exercise.  There is no character growth, except perhaps for one young flight controller.  These are adults we're dealing with here, they're already developed.  What a relief not to have to slog through pages of weepy-ass "Why am I even bothering?" prose and just get to a gripping story for once.  In short, they act the way actual engineers and scientists act.  Let me repeat: what a relief.

Finally, it would be a disservice to the author not to mention the outstanding technical detail he put into this novel.  A few experts in various fields have quietly typed emails to him clearing up some relatively minor loose ends, and this should be taken as testament to the level of writing here.  The entire book rings of truth from beginning to end, and at no time did any pseudo-scientific technobabble jar me – physicist, space enthusiast, digital comms geek – out of immersion in the story.  It is that good.

If you enjoyed the movie Apollo 13, or thought Gene Kranz's memoir Failure is Not an Option was a non-stop page-turner, this is the book for you.  This ranks up there with the tales of Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke.  Maybe that's the best part: it's good readable hard sci-fi, not a leftover tale from some golden age but written in the here and now.  It gives me hope for more and better tales of this order, and for the future as well.

Afternote: Relevant links can be found at last week's post about the movie's trailer.  Interview with the author, his website, etc.

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