Andy Weir, “The Martian” (2011) – A scientist friend of mine described this novel as “engineering fan fiction” and I think he’s more-or-less right. In fact, “The Martian” started life on software engineer Andy Weir’s blog, where he parlayed a lifelong fascination with space travel and interest in the hardware involved into the story of astronaut Mark Watney, accidentally left for dead on Mars and forced to survive on his own. People liked it enough that he turned into a 99-cent-a-download Amazon read, which got picked up by a publisher, becoming a bestseller and a movie with Matt Damon. It’s a nice story.
Most of the story is told through Watney’s log. It’s a series of ups and downs, engineering feats and then failures that need new feats to compensate, etc. A botanist along with being an engineer (astronauts typically have multiple specialties), Watney figures out how to make soil and grow potatoes, only to lose much of it due to explosive decompression in his habitat. He picks up a previous Mars probe and uses that to communicate with NASA but then accidentally shorts it out, etc. In the end, he needs to trek across thousands of hard Mars miles to rendezvous with an escape vehicle and meet up with his old crewmates. The rhythm of challenges met and renewed keeps up pretty well throughout the book.
Watney himself is something of a cipher, a regular-guy ubermensch as understood by a male Gen X STEM guy. He makes a lot of wisecracks, few of them particularly funny. His isn’t unpleasant company to keep for a few hundred pages but it’s not really the point. The NASA people who make up most of the rest of the viewpoint characters are basically interchangeable less one defining trait apiece- the Hard Charger, the Cautious One, the Woman Concerned About the Press. But I guess that’s not the point, either. Maybe it’s just having read some pretty shitty examples of novels of interiority — Sheila Heti and Mike Ma — lately, but I couldn’t fault Weir for having more interest in the stars, or, anyway, the mechanics of Mars rovers and the like, than in his navel or the navels of fictional people. I’m not exactly a gearhead but I can appreciate other people’s enthusiasms. This is a basically enjoyable light read. ***’