Synopsis: An astronaut is stranded on Mars and must survive until NASA can send a rescue mission months later.
Book Review: I went in wanting to like this book, because I love narratives of the new economy triumphing over Old Media. I was not disappointed. :)
The best thing about this book is Andy Weir’s voice. He writes in an extremely personable style – you feel as if you are having a conversation with him right there in the room, and he’s an awesome guy to have a conversation with! He’s witty, and extremely funny, and energetic, and very friendly. This is a guy you want to know, and you get to know him for hundreds of pages. It is ridiculous amounts of fun. His humor isn’t the stilted humor you often find in books – it’s the way people today actually joke amongst themselves, and there were several times I literally laughed out loud.
The second best thing about this book is the problem-solving with real science & engineering. If you liked Apollo 13, there’s a damn good chance you’ll like this book too. It uses the same sort of solutions that combine the esoteric and extremely specialized equipment you have around you with a huge knowledge base to produce brilliant engineering hacks.
The third best thing about this book is that it is written clearly and doesn’t talk down to you. It realizes most people aren’t NASA scientists, so it explains everything to the lay person in common language. And Weir’s character is so friendly and likable that he always does it in a way that makes you feel like you’re a co-conspirator working with him, not a kid he’s lecturing to.
The book does have a few problems. First is that it’s written far too linearly. There is a problem, and then it is solved. Then a new problem is introduced. Then it is solved. Repeat until the end. This killed the tension after every solution, and eventually became predictable and therefore a tad boring. I read a disaster-recovery novel many years ago entitled “A Signal Shattered” which had a similar concept, but new problems were introduced before old ones were solved, sometimes putting the previous problem on hold with something more urgent, sometimes having to be resolved at the same time. Sometimes the solution to an old problem from several chapters back would provide a tool for solving a new problem, or vica versa. Othertimes solving one problem would simply lead to two new ones. The point was, the tension never died away altogether. That would have been a good thing to do.
Secondly, when it comes to the technical aspects of writing, Weir isn’t good at that yet. Whenever he stays with the blog-post-style (most of the novel) it’s fantastic, you love reading the words. But in the few places he switches to a traditional third-person narrative you can tell he’s a first-time writer, the words feel flat and the action feels clunky. There are things you can say in personal conversation which are perfect for conversation, but which do not fly in prose narrative. That’s why people don’t talk like books, and why books don’t sound like people talking. I’m sure Weir will learn over time how to write sharp narrative prose, but it was apparent that it’s not his strong suit.
That being said, all the fun and strong parts of the book really outshine its flaws. Recommended.
Book Club Review: This novel is perfect for book clubs. It reads quickly, several members finished it in a couple days. It makes you want to keep coming back for more, and you can read it in small pieces if you need to. It gives you quite a few things to talk about, both in its strengths and its flaws. One of our members used to work for NASA, and we were regaled with tales of how strict and uptight NASA culture was, and how no one who acted like any of the characters in the novel would have a job for more than five minutes at NASA. :) Another member pointed out that the protagonist is almost a non-character. He has no history, never mentions his past, and never hints at feelings deeper than super-smart class-clown. And yet everyone still loved this book. You can’t not love it, and that makes you want to talk about it a lot, both to discuss the joys of it, and to pick over the flaws. It even touched on a few interesting questions about humanity (how many tens of millions of dollars will we spend to save one well-known man, when we’re unwilling to use that same money to save hundreds of thousands of unknown peasants?) without ever being heavy handed or taking away from the fun of the story. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a better book for book clubs. Strongly Recommended.