Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Martian, or Tony Stark Goes to Mars

I don't have a brain wired for scientific reasoning, but I'm endlessly fascinated by people who understand science and can explain it to me in a way that makes me almost think I can understand it, too. I put them in the same category as those individuals who roughhouse with wild hyenas.

Science, like hyenas, can never be tamed.

The six crewmates of Ares 3 are caught in a serious windstorm (sustained gusts of about 110 mph) on Sol 6 of their scientific mission to Mars. They’re forced to scrub the whole mission and flee the planet as the wind makes serious moves toward tipping the MAV (i.e., the Mars ascent vehicle, their only ticket off that godforsaken rock). As they’re shuffling their blind way toward the MAV, through the whipping wind and dust, Mark Watney (specialties: mechanical engineering and botany) is impaled by a wind-borne antenna and swept far away from the group. Presumed dead by his crew (and reasonably so), he's ultimately abandoned on Mars. The ensuing story is something like Castaway without the coconuts.
If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah. I’m f*****.
As Mark applies his wits and expertise toward the end goal of not becoming dead, he walks us through his adventures and misadventures via logs. He explains his methods in what should be an irritating amount of detail but is not, because tell me more about how you separated pure hydrogen from rocket fuel and then used it to make water and also how you took that whoozit and connected it to this whatsit to create an even handier doodad.

This is a literal fight for survival from beginning to end, and it's an incredibly tense read. It would be much less enjoyable without the levity that Andy Weil (through Mark) brings to every page (let's hope Ridley Scott doesn't run the movie adaptation through his Ultra-Serious Doom Machininator™ and squeeze all the humor out). It's a rare variety of person who can keep the jokes coming while alone on a barren planet that is actively trying to pop him like a blood-filled balloon—which kind of reminds me of this other guy I know.
“I admit it’s fatally dangerous,” Watney said.
“But consider this: I’d get to fly around like Iron Man.”

One more thing: That crew of six people? TWO of them are women. That is one more than the absolute bare minimum, which means this book about a to-this-day overwhelmingly male-dominated profession that centers on a white man stuck on Mars alone passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. All arguments against including real women in sci-fi are invalid for all time.