Written by Ella Walker


Shelf Life

This week Ella Walker assesses The Martian by Andy Weir. Is it worthy of a permanent place on her shelf?

pile of booksWas it love at first sight?

Not at all; in fact, I was pretty bemused. An Amazon package (don’t judge) tumbled through the letterbox, unordered, with nothing to identify it except for a slip of paper from my auntie in Canada that said: “Read this.” How could I argue? My auntie knows her sci-fi and her dystopian fiction, the last recommendation from her being the ever-so creepy but addictive zombie novel, The Girl With All The Gifts by M R Carey (don’t read if you’re squeamish; the eating scenes are bloodily graphic).

How long did it take you to feel truly comfortable around each other?

The jacket cover is truly horrible. I considered ripping it off before starting, but I’m not a vandal. Calippo orange and emblazoned with the brooding face of a man whose moustache has not been properly groomed, it looks like the kind of trashy read you’d distractedly pick up at the airport, then shove behind the tray table and forget about. Ignore the initial revulsion, it deserves a much better design, and I imagine it’ll get one, what with it being made into a Hollywood movie…

Did it make you laugh out loud?

Actually, yes – and that never happens. It’s written like a diary, or log report, by astronaut and biochemist Mark Watney who gets injured and separated from his crew mates during a fairly routine mission to Mars (it’s the future, but a not too distant one). They leave him behind, thinking he’s dead but unluckily for him, he’s not. Fortunately for us, he doesn’t dissolve into a moaning, terrified shell of a man; instead his training kicks in and he’s absolutely hilarious: e.g. bitching about his colleagues up in their spaceship and the fact they only left behind disco music and Agatha Christie novels for him to read; the deep joy he sarcastically expresses at having to save his own excrement in plastic tubs to use to fertilise the potatoes he’s growing all over the floor of his ‘hub’ (space home), and the jokey comments he sets up in Morse code using rocks for his worried team back on earth to pick up via satellite. In fact, sometimes he’s almost too damn chipper. Surely the loneliness would get to him a little bit?

P.S. See also, NASA PR woman Annie Montrose: she’s fantastically sweary in all the right places.

How would you describe it behind its back?

Funny, smart, gripping, but admittedly, Watney is faced with one disaster after another after another. At times it’s just a bit like, come on, give the man a break.

“Are you all alone on a planet whose sole aim is to either starve or freeze you to death, while simultaneously dismantling every piece of equipment that might have given you a sliver of a chance at survival?”

Could you take it on holiday with you, without getting severely hacked off after three days?

Well, this is a tricky one. You see, depending on how patient a person you are, it could take just one intense afternoon beach session to race through, setting you up for a week of passing it along the sunbeds until EVERYONE you are with can discuss it in depth for the remainder of the holiday. However, if you are rubbish at scanning or have any OCD related tendencies, things may be less swift. You see, large chunks are dedicated to complicated space chatter: calculations on liquefying oxygen, cubic metres required for growing potatoes, days vs food supplies remaining = date of death type equations – and they’re just the ones I understood. Get bogged down in the astrophysics and the maths and it’ll begin to feel like holiday homework. Not cool.

The Martian book coverHow would it describe your commitment levels – did you put the effort in?

I plumped for the “happy to scan” camp and tried to just accept the science stuff without getting tangled up in it too much (science never was my subject. Apologies to Mrs Dawes, my GCSE teacher; I still can’t remember the equation for photosynthesis, I’M SORRY). So no, scientifically the effort wasn’t quite there, but plot-wise, it’s hard to not be thoroughly invested in Watney’s race to outwit the red planet. It isn’t necessary to listen to Bowie while reading it, but it’s definitely advisable.

You’ve had a nightmare time. Would it provide the understanding to get you through / soak up your tears?

It’d definitely give you a bit of perspective. It isn’t all that understanding, though. To be fair, are you all alone on a planet whose sole aim, apparently, is to either starve or freeze you to death, while simultaneously dismantling every piece of equipment that might have given you a sliver of a chance at survival? No, huh? Stop moaning then.

Would you let it meet your other friends?

Definitely, mostly so I can moan at length about the fact Matt Damon has been damningly miscast as Mark Watney, and have people agree with me. Just so you know, it’s an unbelievably dreadful decision. Damon’s a good 15 years too old, too muscled and too attractive to play a botanist (no offence, botanists, but come on), and has an ingrained attitude that screams: “Hi there, I’m a hero, watch me turn this nightmare experience on Mars into a heavenly scenario. How d’you like them apples!?!” kinda guy. Also, after his behaviour in Interstellar, I just don’t trust the man when he’s wearing a space suit.

If you suddenly stumbled across it after several years of lost contact, do you reckon you would:
a) think of it fondly but accept you’d both moved on (keep but don’t read)
b) pick up exactly where you left off (reread every few years)
ditch it: obviously you were never really friends

A partial b (if that’s allowed). There are several occasions when a reread will be absolutely necessary: 1) Before the film comes out so I’m up to speed with the ranting Twittersphere. 2) After watching Hollywood massacre it, to remind myself how witty and clever and not action-mad the original is. 3) When climate change makes being able to grow potatoes in undesirable conditions the best skill known to man.

Next time Ella will be reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson.

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Written by Ella Walker

Ella Walker is an entertainment writer and book blogger living in Cambridge. She likes swimming in the sea and eating biscuits. Preferably at the same time.