"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Friday, June 5, 2015

Welcome Eng-Fi, Thanks to 'The Martian'

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a moment in The Martian when NASA, almost out of options, goes to China and asks to borrow a rocket. Considering the non-fictional United States currently has no human-rated rocket and has been buying seats on Russian rockets for years, there is nothing farfetched about this premise. But I digress. NASA asks China to borrow a rocket they have built for a flagship science mission. As China gives its answer, their representative conveys--quite reprovingly--how the U.S. is asking to take a rocket that would have been the scientific pride of a nation and relegate it to emergency taxi. The takeaway? In order to salvage a human mission, science takes a hit.

This is a real debate ongoing in space exploration. Astronomically expensive human spaceflight, mostly just an engineering feat with political motivations, crowds out cheaper and more scientifically valuable missions. Is it worth it?

In The Martian, the answer is clearly yes. A human life is at stake--an astronaut stranded on Mars after a violent sandstorm. Put the science on hold and preserve life. Notwithstanding, it means a lot to me that author Andy Weir reserves a page of his engineering thriller to wax poignant and philosophical about larger issues of science versus politics. It elevates this novel above the level of techy procedural and provides some thematic nourishment.

Though I am a dedicated space enthusiast, I had not even put this book on my to-read list. I let it slip by like most sci-fi, especially Mars stories, which tend toward the dismal. Only when the book club I attend made it this month’s selection did I run to the bookstore and buy a copy. Our book club has a good mix of age and gender, married and single. They uniformly enjoyed this book. The intriguing problem solving that drives the plot, the likability of the protagonist, the Apollo 13 style suspense, all made for a satisfied book club. If it had been a more pretentious, dystopian sci-fi novel, even a classic, I’m not sure the response would have been so favorable.

Kudos to Mr. Weir, who has provided a wonderfully entertaining novel. We call this novel sci-fi. Yet I would argue it is more appropriate to call it engineering fiction, or eng-fi. This is not a novel of scientific discovery. It is a story about applying established knowledge. The Martian proceeds from problem to solution to subsequent problem to next solution. It has a level of techno-speak comparable to the show MythBusters. Some of the finer scientific points may go over the heads of readers like me, but the context remains clear and accessible. Save the Martian! Good read. I highly recommend it.

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