Books: The Martian

My co-worker recommended The Martian to me, after she and her husband went to see the movie based on it. I might decide to see the movie at some point, just for the visual enjoyment, but I’m sure the book is better (as is almost always the case).

It also turned out to be our book club’s selection for March, and we all agreed it was a great choice (except for one person who couldn’t make it to our meeting, who found it rather dry). We were impressed by Mark Watley’s ingenuity and enjoyed his humor.

What I really wanted to know after reading it, though, was how much The Martian gets right – and wrong – about science. Finding online articles on the subject turned out to be easy, though I was frustrated to discover that nearly all of them deal with the movie, not the novel, and at least one of the things the movie gets wrong is where it differs from the novel. But I finally found one that is specific to the novel.

The first inaccuracy – and this is hardly a spoiler because it’s where the book starts – is the dust storm. The dust storm itself is real enough, but it would not have the catastrophic effects on the astronauts and their mission that author Andy Weir needed to set his novel in motion. Weir knew that, but he needed it, so he allowed himself the dramatic license.

One comment pointed out that the most unrealistic aspects of the novel aren’t the science but the people. Could you really get the U.S. and China to work together? And even with a man’s life at stake, could you spend that much taxpayer money on his rescue?

One thing it gets right, though, as far as people are concerned, is the role of humor in getting people through really tough situations. Not having seen the movie, I wonder just how much of Watley’s humor came through. I hope it did, because it is part of what makes the book so enjoyable. Not generally laugh-out-loud kind of humor – that’s not generally my type. But the good don’t-take-yourself-too-seriously kind of humor that is so important for dealing with problems.

Whatever details Weir gets wrong, though, his portrayal of human ingenuity is a big hit with real-life engineers. I’m no engineer, but I do like solving problems, so perhaps that’s part of why it appeals to me. I’m much better with software issues than with machinery, but I can appreciate the principles behind engineering even if I might get lost in the math, physics, and chemistry. And Watley does a good job (to my mind) of explaining how and why his solutions work.

One thing I found interesting was how the book came to be written. It started out as chapters self-published on a blog. Reader comments helped provide ideas and correct mistakes, helping in areas where Weir’s own science background was weaker. But his enthusiasm for science is clear, and that’s a big part of what makes the book such a success.

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