The Martian – Andy Weir

The Martian

Mark Watney is alone and stranded, with a limited and diminishing supply of food and water, no communications, and everyone believes he is dead. But that’s not the bad news. The bad news is he’s not even on Earth – he’s stranded at the landing site of the manned mission Ares 3, on Acidalia Planitia, planet Mars. An emergency mission abort caused by a violent dust storm, a big stroke of bad luck, and the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) has ascended with the rest of the crew… but without him.

Andy Weir’s first book, initially self-published on his website and now a major publishing release, is the Martian Robinson Crusoe – a hard sci-fi narrative which follows in the great tradition of Arthur C Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust, and the real life Apollo 13 – it’s a story of survival, overcoming the odds, and ingenuity.

Meticulously researched, Watney’s story comes across as entirely believable – you come away sure this could really happen, that it really would be like this. The engineering is based on real world mission profiles, and because much of the narrative is in the form of Watney’s diary, you’re in on his day to day thoughts as he figures out how to stay alive, works the numbers, and plans ways for his own rescue. His training as a botanist at least gives him a head start in farming! In another parallel to Apollo 13, the narrative switches to and fro well between the stranded astronaut, and NASA Mission Controllers on Earth. The mission control characters are less well developed, but that’s not a bad thing as the focus is truly on Watney.

I really enjoyed the book, and certainly read it quickly as it’s hard to put down once you’re inside. To me there were a couple of flaws which stop it being a great book (who was it said that those who can, do, and those who can’t, criticise? Anyway)…

One of my other favourite authors, Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy, is a master of description and scene painting. Sometimes – as in his book 2312 as well as in sections of Green and Blue Mars – the description can drag on in place of plot development. In Weir’s The Martian, the reverse is the case – the plot motors along, quite literally with Watney driving hundreds of miles across Mars in his rover, but any sense of imagery and power of place was missing for me. Here is a man driving over the billion-year-old landscape of another planet, with dunes, rock formations, escarpments, dry river valleys, craters – every vista never before seen by human eyes, and it’s described so sparsely he might as well be travelling across a parking lot.

Some reviews have criticised Watney’s character as lacking dimensions – a criticism similarly levelled at A Fall Of Moondust as it happens – but that doesn’t bother me, in fact it makes it accurate. He’s a highly trained professional with a can-do attitude and irrepressible humour, and in such a situation – again, like the real life Apollo 13 – the astronaut is well adjusted and focussed at all times on the job in hand. A couple of times the mask slips with despairing entries into the diary, but that’s it. I’d be more irritated if the author had stuffed him with neuroses and hang-ups (didn’t they screen astronauts for long-duration mission suitability, I would have been shouting?).

The Martian is a worthy first novel for Andy Weir and I will look forward to his next journey.


Sand – Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey is not just an author – he is one of my favourite authors ever. And this is not bad going considering I first became aware of his work about 18 months ago when Wool was released in the UK.  Wool, and its two sequels Shift and Dust, were originally self published as e-books in the States, but when they were taken on by a mainstream publisher Howey did the unthinkable and retained the rights to the e-books (in the USA). He is now a champion of self-publishing and actively encourages fan fiction set in the worlds he has created. Of course, if the books themselves were not good, all that would be purely academic – luckily the enclosed world of the Wool trilogy, the characters and the brilliant plotting mean that I will reading any of his books I can lay my hands on.

9781780893181I was, as you can imagine, very pleased to see on his blog that Hugh Howey’s latest book was due for release this summer but approached it with some trepidation. As I said earlier I was a big fan of the world in which Wool was set – would this new world be as interesting; as detailed; as good? Wool is set in a series of silos in a landscape totally hostile to all life – it was like the mother of all locked room mysteries – the new book, Sand, is set in a vast desert which seemed to have the potential to lack, well, the detail and variety of the silos.  I really shouldn’t have worried. The desert is another brilliantly imagined dystopia – with far more varied scenes than I had imagined. We see it as a home, a job of work and an ever-present danger – we travel across it on something like windsurfers and we dive beneath it as if it were an ocean. And the characters, once again, are hugely realistic, full of human flaws and you become totally involved in their lives.

I’m not going to give too many details of the plot. Howey’s books have such wonderfully detailed plots and a large part of the joy is in watching those plots expand out from the initial premise, seeping (almost like sand) into new and previously unconsidered places. I am pleased to report that the ending seems to lead into the distinct possibility of a sequel – although, obviously, this means more waiting…..

In conclusion I spend a lot of my time at work recommending the Wool trilogy to customers and I will be steering them towards Sand.  I will also be very keen to make sure that they at least look at the physical hardback edition – it is a thing of beauty and proof of why Hugh Howey loves the work his UK publisher does…


Night School – Richard Wiseman

That Shakespeare is a clever bloke. He has a quote for everything and in this case it is ‘To sleep, perchance to dream’ – which pretty much covers this fascinating study of something called ‘sleep science’.  I will admit that I was initially dubious about the word ‘science’ but most of the source materials listed at the end of the text  are respected scientific journals like ‘Science‘ and ‘The Lancet‘ so there is certainly a solid basis to Professor Wiseman’s claims.

9781447248408So, what did I learn? Quite a bit in the end – some factoids which would not be out of place on an episode of QI* and some really useful and practical hints and tips which I will be using to improve both the quality and quantity of my own sleep. It turns out that we are, in these modern times, becoming chronically sleep deprived from a very early age – this didn’t happen before the age of electricity so next time you can’t sleep maybe you should be blaming Thomas Edison. There have been a lot of news reports recently blaming our collective insomnia on the devices (tvs, laptops and smart phones) which we have allowed into our bedrooms: this book goes into some detail about exactly why these things are a problem.

Richard Wiseman is Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire so it should be no surprise that this book, despite covering an awful lot of psychology, neuroscience and other clever stuff, is an entertaining read. It is full of anecdotes – about a DJ trying to stay awake for 8 days, researchers living in caves to discover if we still have a cycle of sleeping and waking even when we don’t see daylight for weeks and how sleep deprivation led to one of the largest environmental disasters ever – and helps you to assess what sort of sleep you are currently getting.  It also makes a good case for trying to get more and better sleep – some of the horror stories about the effects of sleep deprivation on drivers in particular is, ironically, going to be keeping me awake at nights.

Not getting enough good sleep can contribute to obesity, some cancers, high blood pressure and reduced life expectancy generally. A decent night’s sleep can improve your complexion and flush toxins from your brain cells. And all this is before we get to the benefits and purpose of dreams. The best part of this book is that, with a bit of work, it seems you can learn how to avoid jet-lag, improve the quality of your sleeping and, in some cases, learn how to exert control over your dreams. In the interests of science I’m considering an early night and thinking happy thoughts (possibly involving Benedict Cumberbatch….)





* Did you know that older people, who were raised on black and white television, are over 3 times more likely to  dream in monochrome than those who had access to colour tv as children?

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

Considering I am one of the whitest people you could ever meet (if it is anything more than bright outside I tend to reach for the factor 30…..) I have been enjoying a lot of fiction written from a black perspective recently ( We Need New Names, Ghana Must Go and The Invention of Wings  are ones which spring to mind). Along with all the Nordic stuff I suspect this reflects an interest in reading about people who have a hugely different experience of life from my own – and, oddly, the main thing I get from this is how similar people are in the end. While I may never have had to flee my home, experience slavery or adopt a baby moose* the feelings and emotions I read about seem familiar.

a9780007356348Americanah, on the face of things, is another novel far from my own life. There is an interrupted love story, two characters who have to learn to live in unfamiliar countries and an underlying sense of danger. It is easy to take Ifemelu’s account of a middle-class childhood in Nigeria at face value – there is a certain amount of privilege, although some families are obviously poorer than others, and politics seems to happen to other people – but the bigger problems are there. Things we take for granted, running water and power, are unreliable; the army seems to have powers which go beyond anything justifiable; in the later parts of the novel corruption and the oil industry are ever-present. Obinze, Ifemelu’s first love, is deported from the UK as an illegal immigrant – and because our current reading is always informed by books we have read in the past – I was instantly reminded of the experiences of Little Bee in the wonderful The Other Hand.

The best thing about this book for me is the fact that I hope I now understand more about what it is like to have to consider my race as a factor in my day-to-day life. I am, all things considered, hardly likely to become black so it may seem that this is not useful information for me. However, Ifemelu’s blog posts are very instructive for everyone – white people, American black people and non-American ones – and often seem to be full of common sense. The most important thing I think I have learned is that I will not fully understand the experience of someone of a different race but that it is not wrong to ask them about that experience. I cannot tell them how they should feel or be – but they can explain it to me….

I did have some problems with this book. One of the aspects shared by the other novels I have read with African protagonists is the way that the rich variety of accents and voices are made audible through the writing. I could hear the rhythms of speech in all these other books – in this one, although much is made of Ifemelu’s conscious decision not to lose her Nigerian accent and adopt an American one, I just can’t hear it. It is a minor point but it bothered me. However, Ifemelu’s words, as written in her blog as well as in her speech, are very realistic. She isn’t perfect but she is not afraid to give her opinion. I think I would like her very much….


*The moose was in a Nordic novel. Not an African one.