Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Martian – Andy Weir

 Summary (Amazon): Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.

Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.

After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.

Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.

But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

My Review (Spoilers!!)

Executive Summary: hilarious

We picked this book for book club this year, and I have been VERY IMPATIENTLY waiting to read it. My husband read it. My dad read it. It feels like the entire population except for me had read it. But finally! I joined the club. And it was worth the wait.

The simple summary of this book is that Mark Watney was accidentally abandoned on Mars by his crew during a storm because they thought that he was dead and they needed to get out of there before they were all dead.

The long summary is a nerdy hilarious story of Mark Watney’s attempt to stay alive. Hilarious both because Mark has a great dorky sense of humor that made me laugh out loud multiple times, and also because of his sometimes disastrous attempts at making things work.

Once he realizes that he is alive and was abandoned on Mars, he manages to seal his spacesuit and assess the situation. He has no way to contact Earth. The next mission isn’t expected for 4 years, and he only has food for 300 days. On the plus, he has solar cells, water, and oxygen as well as plenty of vitamins. He also has terrible 70s television and disco music. He realizes that he was sent to Mars with some actual potatoes so that they can have a Thanksgiving. He decides to plant the potatoes using a combination of poop and Mars soil. He has to collect quite a lot of both to fill the space he has for crops (which is inside the Hab). He also has to figure out how to generate more water, which he does, although he almost blows himself up in a hydrogen bomb in the process.

Eventually a low level employee at NASA realizes that Watney is still alive due to various things moving around. They can’t contact him, but they keep track of him with their camera. They decide to not tell his returning crew because there is great concern of their morale of leaving a crew member behind on a long trip back to Earth. (Eventually they are told though.)

This is my favorite quote from the book: Teddy swiveled his chair and looked out the window to the sky beyond. Night was edging in. “What must it be like?” he pondered. “He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?” He turned back to Venkat. “I wonder what he’s thinking right now.”

LOG ENTRY: SOL 61

How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense!

While Mark’s potatoes are growing, his next task is to trick out the Rovers so that he can take a journey partly as a test run for his 3200 km journey to the area where Ares 4’s MAV has already landed. And partly so that he can find the Pathfinder probe from 1997 for communication. He takes the battery from one rover so that he can swap out. He loads up the solar cells, and takes it for a test run. It gets far too cold so he decides on a crazy idea–using the radioactive power cell to supply heat. Once he works out the bugs, he heads out with Houston (and the rest of the world) watching remotely. A fairly uneventful trip, he recovers the Pathfinder and upon returning to the Hab, he manages to get it up and running.

With contact from Houston, things get better but also way more complicated. Mark can’t be a maverick doing whatever he wants any more. He has a world’s worth of scientists analyzing his every move. They have him double-check that all the safety mechanisms are still operating correctly, and they evaluate his farming. Everything is good. Everyone sets on finding a way to get Mark off of Mars. In the meantime, a fluke accident occurs causing a tear in the Hab, which ruins many of the potatoes–causing the situation to be much more urgent.

The main problem is that the planets are not lined up in a way that is optimum. NASA hurries a probe full of food to keep Mark until he can be rescued as food is the major issue. Unfortunately due to rushing it, it doesn’t launch properly, and now situations are really dire.

Luckily the sneaky Chinese have been developing a probe, and they are willing to cut a deal with the Americans. If NASA promises to put a Chinese astronaut into the next Mars mission. NASA agrees. In the meantime, one of the engineers at NASA has come up with an alternate proposal. They have to decide whether to launch the Chinese probe to land directly on Mars six weeks after Mark is scheduled to run out of food -OR- to reroute the returning Ares 3 to pick up Mark as he launches in the MAV adding over a year to their journey. With much debate, the decision is made to go with the first option so as to only endanger one life.

However, one NASA employee thinks otherwise and decides that there’s a way to force option two. He sends an encrypted message to Ares 3; they take a vote and decide to turn back. Once they have turned back, it’s too late to change. Mark begins his preparations for traversing to the MAV. NASA provides him with a plan to convert the second rover, which will be hitched to the other, so that he can carry everything that he needs for the journey. As he is doing the conversion, he short circuits his communication home. They can still see him, but he cannot communicate with them. Periodically he lays out rocks to spell out things in Morse code to communicate back, but it takes time and he has a lot to do. Eventually he gets everything ready to go and he heads out to the MAV. It is a long journey, but without too much disaster. He avoids a sandstorm (you’re humming that song too, aren’t you?) which is slowly making his solar cells not achieve a full charge (thus reducing the distance he can travel each day). He also has a small accident where he careens into a bit of a crater due to some powdery soil upsetting both his truck and trailer. But he makes it.

Upon arrival, he can again communicate with Earth, and they begin to communicate instructions on modifying the MAV so that it can be lightweight enough to make contact with Ares 3. It is ghetto. Mark cuts most of the roof off of the expensive piece of equipment to reduce the weight, and then reseals it with tarp from the Hab. He is using his urine along with a lot of his other water supply to generate fuel to power the MAV (hydrogen). “If I survive this, I’ll tell people I was pissing rocket fuel.”

Upon launch, everything starts according to plan. However, the makeshift roof does not hold up, and causes the aerodynamics of the MAV to be severely hindered. It causes the MAV to miss its target and Mark is passed out inside due to the severe g’s that he encountered. The crew of the Ares 3 decides to use the atmosphere as thrust to get to Mark to intercept him. They blow a section out which allows Beck to have an appropriate velocity to get Mark and return to the ship. Hooray! Everyone’s saved.

Verdict: 4 stars

This book was great. It was nerdy and funny, but I was a little wishy washy on the ending. I get it. You have to end a book somewhere, and maybe it’s set up for a sequel. But the crew has so long remaining in space with a damaged ship. It made the ending seem a little preemptive. But I guess it is called The Martian and not The Astronaut so once they leave Mars, the title and thus the book can end. I may have to assume that they all made it back and that Astronaut Johanssen didn’t have to eat them all. That certainly changes things if that was actually the real ending. Happy Halloween!

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Filed under 4 stars

Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein

  Summary (Amazon): Epic, ambitious and entertaining, Stranger in a Strange Land caused controversy and uproar when it was first published and is still topical and challenging today. Twenty-five years ago, the first manned mission to Mars was lost, and all hands presumed dead. But someone survived…Born on the doomed spaceship and raised by the Martians who saved his life, Valentine Michael Smith has never seen a human being until the day a second expedition to Mars discovers him. Upon his return to Earth, a young nurse named Jill Boardman sneaks into Smith’s hospital room and shares a glass of water with him, a simple act for her but a sacred ritual on Mars. Now, connected by an incredible bond, Smith, Jill and a writer named Jubal must fight to protect a right we all take for granted: the right to love.

My Review (Spoilers!!)

Executive Summary: weird

Robert Heinlein is one of the most famous sci-fi writers of all time, and he was well-regarded in Among Others. I had never read any of his books, and this was one that was suggested (but not chosen) for book club this year, so I decided to read it on my own. Unfortunately I didn’t really like it in the end.

As an FYI, apparently this book has 2 versions–an “uncut” version that was released in 1991 and the original edited version that was released in 1961. I bought my copy from Ebay, and it was published in 1981 so thus was the original edited version of the book.

The underlying story drew me in. Sometime in the future (from 1961), we have colonized the moon and therefore moved on to Mars. A mission is sent to Mars with a variety of super high level scientists. Upon arrival, contact is lost. Years later, a second mission is sent, and find a single survivor–Valentine Michael Smith, a child born on Mars from two of the scientists–not two who were married. Due to the scandal, the other scientists kill each other. Michael is raised by Martians, who are only sort of described in the novel. This second mission of astronauts brings Michael back to Earth.

He is quarantined in a hospital and almost seems mentally handicapped. One of the nurses, Gillian “Jill” Boardman, sneaks in to see him (since he has never seen women, he is only looked after by men). She gives him water and they become “water brothers”. She tells her reporter friend, Ben Caxton, about the incident and he pieces together the reason that Smith is being held–he is potentially the owner of Mars. Ben convinces Jill to kidnap/rescue Smith, after a period of spying on him with listening devices, which she does by dressing him as a nurse. (This was funny to me because she dresses him as a 1961 nurse–in stockings which she tapes to his legs because she doesn’t have a garter belt for him. I don’t believe that nurses will revert from scrubs to stockings and garter belts between now and colonizing Mars.)

As Jill is breaking Smith out of the hospital, Ben is getting arrested. When she arrives at Ben’s house with Smith and he isn’t there, she decides to take Smith with her to a friend of Ben’s–Jubal Harshaw. Jubal is a jack of all trades it seems. He’s a lawyer-doctor-writer. He initially is against the idea but his curiosity gets the best of him, and he allows them to stay. While there, he and the others who live with him all become water brothers with Smith, who learns quickly about human culture (another thing about reading an old sci-fi. Heinlein didn’t foresee Internet. So Smith learns about humans by reading encyclopedias). He never fully understands though. He doesn’t get the idea of love or laughter. He also becomes obsessed with religion because he wants to know the truth about things like the “Old Ones” (Martians) do. He displays the fact that he can make objects disappear whether it be weapons, people, whatever. He is very upset though any time he has to get rid of people because in Martian culture, Martians choose when to discorporate and become “Old Ones” and their body is then ceremoniously eaten by the others.

At some point throughout this stay at Jubal’s, Caxton is rescued, and Jubal sorts out Smith’s political status. From there, Smith and Jill leave to explore humanity. They explore churches and various religions. They tour around doing stage shows, Smith of course making items disappear and levitate using his Martian skills. After a stint where Jill is a dancer in Las Vegas where she allows Smith to see how other men see her, he begins to understand humanity more fully (I guess. This whole sexuality thing struck me as really odd.)

Jill and Smith then form a “church” of sorts where they teach people essentially to be Martian. They communicate in Martian which allows them to communicate telepathically. They also don’t wear clothes except when they go outside, and Smith “steals” money from casinos to sustain them. (He just can telepathically control the machines so that he gets a payout. He finds gambling to be “wrongness” so he is hoping that he will bankrupt them.) Ben Caxton eventually stops by and then gets freaked out by it and goes to tell Jubal. Shortly thereafter, the church is destroyed, but luckily Smith teleports everyone to safety. Smith is arrested though, but he breaks himself and all the other nonviolent criminals out of jail. (The violent very bad criminals he gets rid of). Jubal is then convinced to visit and is treated like a god. (Smith considers Jubal to be the person who enlightened him and therefore helped him create this enlightenment.) This enlightenment of course also assumes that open sexuality frees people of jealousy. And that people should use sex for happiness rather than for procreation. Apparently when you’re enlightened, you choose when to make a child. Essentially all of the characters that have been introduced throughout the book already are part of this nest.

Smith is in a huge push to have all of the Martian language transcribed, and when he finishes, he finally joins Jubal. He has finally figured out that Martian and Human is not the same, and instead of trying to teach it, he decides that he needs to show it by going out to meet the mob of Fosterites (a religion who is suspected in the destruction of his nest because they think his ideas are immoral) and he is killed. No one is that upset about it because apparently only his human body is gone but his soul remains with them like the Old Ones. They relocate the Nest to Jubal’s to continue the Martian teaching.

Verdict: 3.5 stars (the .5 star added solely as a benefit of the doubt to its importance in history)

Maybe this book was great in 1961. Unfortunately I don’t know. I don’t think it has aged well though. It comes off to me as very dated. We have flying cars but we are still reading encyclopedias. I realize that the Internet would have been hard to predict, however, it still makes the book come off a little hokey. The main dislike of this book though was the treatment of women. I had heard that Heinlein was a “feminist” however, I don’t see that at all in this book. The women in the book are in the form of a nurse, and three secretaries who make up Jubal’s “harem”. There was even a quote in the book which said “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault”. No. In the meeting of head political figures in the book, none of them were women. And when Jill and Mike were enlightened during the show in Las Vegas, it came off very one-sided and sexist. It’s just hard for me to get behind this.

Another thing that is a product of the time it was written was that although there was only 1 gender in Martians, this Martian nest at the end, was very distinctly 2 gendered. If the book were written today, I think it would be only slightly scandalous for the enlightenment to be for everyone to be bi-sexual and essentially 1 gender.

In general, the writing in the book is good. However, something that is common from media (books and movies) from this era is a propensity to focus heavily on trivial unrelated details. This book does that regularly, and it really detracted from the overall read in my opinion. The other detraction was that later in the book, there are these weird cuts to scenes that are apparently in heaven. They add nothing and are completely confusing.

I would like to read another Heinlein to see whether it was just this specific book or him in general that I disliked.

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Book Review