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The Martian: Entertaining Science

Posted by cirvine on July 6, 2015

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We’ve all imagined what it would be like; waking up to find you’re the only living person on the planet. How would you handle it? The lack of companionship; the fight to survive without the conveniences of civilization; the ensuing madness; the utter boredom. The Martian is a novel that examines this common what if scenario, and then amplifies the dilemma by framing it in a barren and unforgiving landscape: Mars.

Andy Weir’s first published novel is a story about astronaut Mark Watney, a botanist and mechanical engineer for NASA who is left stranded on Mars when a sandstorm forces the rest of his crew to evacuate their landing site. A satellite antenna tears his spacesuit and destroys his bio-monitor, leaving his crewmates to believe he is dead, and under strict command to forego any unnecessary weight, they leave his body in the sand.

Thus begins the Robinson Crusoe-esque tale of Mark Watney, our resourceful and entertaining hero. Through his daily logs in the Martian Habitat (Hab) computer, we get glimpses into Mark’s struggle to survive life on Mars. The Hab has enough food, water and oxygen to last 31 days, but Watney needs to survive 4 long years, which is when the next mission will land on Schiaparelli, a Martian crater about 3,200 kilometers away. Needless to say, he has a lot of work to do.

The novel reads as one giant homage to science. With the minimal supplies Watney has to work with, he’s able to do some incredible things, with the help of chemistry, botany, and engineering. One of his first major accomplishments we see is the ability to actually grow a crop of potatoes in the Hab, allowing his food resource to last much longer than anticipated. As an Arts grad I will be the first to say that some of the science becomes a little convoluted and I was tempted to skip over some of it, but for the most part, Watney’s mini science lessons are very interesting. Take this one for example: “The problem with small pressure vessels is CO2 toxicity. You can have all the oxygen in the world, but once the CO2 gets above 1%, you’ll start to get drowsy. At 2%, it’s like being drunk. At 5%, it’s hard to stay conscious. Eight percent will eventually kill you. Staying alive isn’t about oxygen, it’s about getting rid of CO2.”

I think the best part about The Martian is, well, The Martian, Mark Watney himself! Despite the predicament he’s in, you very rarely see him succumb to depression or anxiety, and whether that is due to his training as an astronaut or his own innate virtues, the reader is thankful for it. In truth, Watney is more entertainment than anguish, as his witty humour trumps any sense of despair, while at the same time keeps us entertained through what could have been a very boring high school science class. While at some points you find his upbeat attitude hard to believe, it keeps the novel moving along well.  Likewise, this nice blend of comedian and geek makes you root for and cheer on Watney the entire way through.

Andy Weir’s debut novel is a rare breed. It is at once funny, thrilling, addictive and smart. It succeeds admirably as a tribute to science and the feats of human ingenuity. No matter what type of person you are, anyone can get something new from this book. I myself have a newfound respect for duct tape. As Mark says, “Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.”

Give this one a read. At the very least you’ll be prepared for the movie coming out this October!