Note: Details about next month’s book are at the bottom of this post.
Welcome back to the Skepchick Book Club! This month, we finally read a sci-fi book, The Martian by Andy Weir. The overall consensus from my fellow readers is that this book was a quick read (even though it was 350 pages) because it was just so hard to put down. I was biting my nails until the last page!
The premise of the novel is that Mark Watney, an astronaut, is stranded on Mars during a botched evacuation of the planet. During a freak windstorm, the crew decides to abandon their mission early and leave the planet, but right before they can all make it in the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), Watney is hit by a piece of debris and blown away. The crew is forced to abandon him (or else they wouldn’t be able to make it off the planet alive) and they believe that Watney is dead.
However, Watney soon wakes up, patches a small leak in his spacesuit, and heads back to the Hab (the habitat, the building used to house the astronauts) to think about his options. Unfortunately, the piece of debris that hit him was the communications satellite, and now he has no way to talk to NASA or his crew. Because the crew abandoned a month-long mission on Sol 6 (days on Mars are measured in Sols), Watney has enough rations to last a year. Unfortunately (again), the next mission to Mars isn’t for another four years. So his primary goals are to establish communication with NASA and find a way to get more food.
Another thing that Watney has going for him is that he is a skilled botanist and mechanical engineer. And also he can MacGyver the shit out of anything.
My specialty is not in the type of science that is described frequently throughout the book, so I can’t comment on the scientific accuracy of everything, but from a technobabble point of view, it seemed believable enough. (My mechanical engineering expertise ends at, “You point a sonic screwdriver at it and flashy lights blink, then the thing happens.”)
Weir’s writing style is mostly good (even though the character of Watney comes off as sexist a few times, and other characters feel a little trope-y, but I’ll forgive anyone who’s stuck on Mars indefinitely). I felt like I was right there with Watney, stranded on Mars, looking around for a solution.
There were a lot of chapters that began and ended with, “Well, I’m fucked,” and a lot of others that started with, “I figured out a solution!” For example, Watney needs to figure out how to make more water in order to grow food. His solution is to take advantage of the combustion reaction in order to combine oxygen and hydrogen. He has a lot of oxygen available, but no hydrogen. Oh wait, he does have hydrogen, but it is in the form of hydrazine, a rocket fuel, so he has to combust hydrazine to liberate the hydrogen. And he has to do it in the Hab. In other words, he has to make a very carefully controlled explosion happen in the only place on Mars that can sustain his life.
Another thing that Watney has to tackle with is his boredom. It’s not as life-threatening as the other issues, but it’s still important. Fortunately, every astronaut was able to bring a datastick with them, full of whatever books or other multimedia they wanted. Unfortunately, their choices sounded kind of awful. The datasticks included: disco music, all the Beatles’ albums, classic seventies TV shows, medical journals, and some books in German. (Three’s Company was on a datastick, and it included that one episode where Mr. Roper sees something and takes it completely out of context.)
I won’t give away the ending or the best parts in the post (save the spoilers for the comments). I really did enjoy this book. It was a fast, anxiety-inducing read and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in modern sci-fi.
This Month’s Themed Recipe: German Potato Salad
In order to stay alive, Watney has to subsist on vitamins and potatoes. Thus, a potato-themed recipe seemed appropriate! Here is the recipe I use for German-style Potato Salad. If you’re not familiar with the German version, it has a lot more vinegar, no mayo, and it is tangy and delicious. It goes great with a smooth beer, a wurst, and some pickled red cabbage. (Umm is it Oktoberfest yet?)
Next Month’s Book: Jesus Land
Next month, we are reading Jesus Land: A Memoir by Julia Scheeres, where she writes about her experience growing up in an extremist Christian household and being sent away to a religious reform school in the Dominican Republic. I’ll be putting up a post on Sunday, July 20th (and if you’re in the Boston area, please consider coming to our in-person discussion the day before). See you next time!