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Book Review: The Martian

Book Review
The Martian

"Andy Weir manages to make a very credible proposal that survival on Mars is not just feasible but practical with a little additional planning and materials"

- Azeem Khan

In the last couple of decades, even before PathFinder left Earth, the next frontier in conquering space has been to visit another planet. Since Venus is a planet completely hostile to any life, Mars has been the logical choice. As we have remarked before elsewhere, even on Earth, human beings live in a very small habitable zone. We simply die without advanced technology if we step out of that crucible. Consequently, a number of missions, mostly satellite probes have been launched to study Mars. Then of course there were the Mars rovers Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity (and hopefully Mangalyaan in the future) that actually landed on Mars. This has been necessary to understand what to expect if human beings ever landed there.

 

 

The Martian by Andy Weir is set in the future where two manned missions to Mars by NASA have been completed and a third is underway when things go badly wrong for one astronaut. Simply speaking, the astronaut is left stranded on Mars by mistake as his team heads back to Earth. The entire book is how the astronaut 'Mark Watney' survives in that inhospitable planet and eventually gets rescued more than a year later.

The book is simply great at capturing your imagination. After a slow start and after being turned off by some of the vulgar language, the book picks up speed as NASA realizes they have a stranded astronaut on Mars. I read nearly three-fourths of the book straight before deciding to retire for the night. It was tough to put it down.

 

This image is not in the book. Only for demonstration purpose here.

 

The book starts with the first-person narrative of Mark and alternates with what's happening at NASA as the brightest minds try to figure out how to bring the astronaut back home. There are five fundamental problems that Mark has to deal with. Communications with NASA, food, power, breathable air and finally but equally importantly traveling thousands of kilometers in a Mars rover.

The author goes into great detail into showing how each of the problems faced by Mark are addressed by him and NASA. These are problems of chemistry, botany, electricity, engineering and in many cases lateral thinking. Chemistry to figure out how to get air, botany to understand nutrition, electricity for making sure that all equipment work well, engineering on how to mix and match components to do something that they were not designed to do and finally an ability to look at a problem from a different angle. In fact, a number of times, Mark uses a now almost defunct technology like Morse Code to communicate with NASA on Earth and the NASA folks reacting rapidly in their own plans to what he is planning.


Its obvious that the rigorous training of NASA astronauts turn out to be extremely important for their survival and its not just to make them function smoothly. We have heard about recycling urine in space for a few years now. But have you heard about the Chinese space team that survived on plants and worms for more than 3 months in a habitat recently?  Clearly, it takes a person of not just above average intelligence but a very rational mind and a strong desire to live to succeed in a very inhospitable environment - Space.

Nevertheless, at a number of places in the story, I got the impression that Mark was lucky far too often and far too bright. This (besides the sometimes off-color language) was the only sore point of the book. If not for the fact that stranded in Space is a scary situation, the premise would probably make a great game. There have been a number of space related movies off late so I would not count this book to be made into a movie.

As I closed the book cover, I asked myself 'What if another of the astronauts had been left behind instead?'. In my opinion, Andy Weir manages to make a very credible proposal that survival on Mars is not just feasible but practical with a little additional planning and materials. So, if you have not read it, get it today. Its a wonderful addition to your library and tremendous entertainment.

 

ISS Rating

    Print quality: Good
    Accessibility: High school students and above
    Content: Excellent
    Category: Fiction
    Overall: Great

 

Author
Azeem Khan

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