I am going to have a teenager in my house. In - wow - 11 days, I will suddenly have a teenage boy in my house.
Relax, that's root beer. And that's MY jacket. He looks better in it than I do, the swine. His feet are bigger than mine. His tan is better than mine. God, I think his hair might be better than mine! Sigh.
His taste in reading material is pretty good, though. And he reads faster than I do, so lately I've been relying on him to vet titles for me the way I used to for him (Poison by Bridget Zinn and Mortal Danger by Ann Aguirre both get his seal of approval). So it felt very darn peculiar to recommend The Martian to him.
The Martian was one of the rare adult books that I sometimes pick up for myself, and it turned out to be incredibly meaningful and moving to me. When I cracked it for the first time, I literally had no idea what was going to happen. The astronaut is stranded on Mars. Is he going to meet aliens? Is he going to discover the Lost City of Atlantis? Will he get it on with the princess of Barsoom? Those could have been entertaining books. Are we going to watch him go slowly insane contemplating the universe in his solitude? I might have also enjoyed that book.
None of that, though. I was surprised as hell when the premise was taken seriously and the book turned out to be a series of science problems. Science problems laced with amusing profanity, but - really it must be said - hard, smart fucking science. While you'd have to call it speculative fiction, this is not a work of the imagination. It respects the reader, it respects the characters, it respects the scientific community. Let's call it theoretical fiction.
When I was four, we sent humans to the Moon. I just barely remember watching it on the tiny TV in our claustrophobic kitchen. The idea of those men riding a plume of innovation, effort, and collective will out of Earth's atmosphere and onto another orbital body blows me away every time I think of it. I watched From the Earth to the Moon with tears streaming down my face.
The book feels the same way. The Martian celebrates the genius and training and hard work of the extremely varied types of people who end up in the space program or at the big labs. My dad worked for one of those labs, and growing up, we knew a lot of those people. They were smart and sometimes strange and often socially inept, and as a kid, I kind of thought all adults were like that. Only later did I realize how rare they are, and how marginalized.
It meant a lot to me to read a book in which they were the heroes. It was a funny feeling to realize that my son might be old enough to appreciate that too, and what is more, that I really really wanted him to.
Let me go ahead and give you the jubilant capsule review I wrote at the time:
All these people who say it's like Apollo 13 meets Robinson Crusoe - that's about right. But without the baggage of Crusoe and not quite as breathless as Apollo 13. Maybe it's Apollo 13 meets oh, that goddamn thing where Tom Hanks makes everything he needs out of a bunch of FedEx shipments and talks to a volleyball. Cast Away. Although that's a lot of Tom Hanks, and the young scientist/astronaut in this movie is more like a Nicholas Hoult or - whoa - Tina Majorino.
It is all problem-solving and suspense and truly, truly unprecedented situations. Our stranded astronaut, Mark, is smart and handy and has a great sense of humor. He patches, he repurposes, he makes jokes about using his shit as fertilizer. He has a couple of moments of "I'M GONNA DIEEE!!" but then he always goes, "Oh wait, how about if I..." Totally the guy you'd want to be stranded on Mars with. It's left to the mission specialists and NASA administrators on the ground to get all emotional, and we love them for that, too. Totally the guys you'd want minding the comm if you were stranded on Mars with Nicholas Hoult.
I can't believe that despite the bleak premise, this is such an upbeat book, and I kind of can't believe that I love it so much - upbeat is not usually my thing. But it was so engrossing I started it at about 10 last night and read straight through til 8 this morning.
So when I saw the audio version at the library, I realized I'd been yearning to share the experience of this story with my kids. The book speaks to a part of me that is hard-wired in place and though I would say that my kids know me pretty well, it's kind of a watershed moment to invite them in to something that leaves me so breathless.
I wasn't sure they'd like it. There's math, and chemistry, and extreme botany. But there are also explosions and bad smells, so I shouldn't have been surprised when they insisted on listening to it for hours. They made themselves comfortable on the living room floor, their heads pointed to the CD player, absolutely rapt. It looked like the old days of radio.
Now, the book is truly loaded with profanity, and don't think I ignored that fact in letting my 11- and 12-year-old children listen to it. We have explained bad words to our kids thusly: when you experience unacceptably extreme emotion or shock, sometimes you need shocking, socially unacceptable words to express yourself. Bad words are for adults because adults encounter extreme situations that kids do not (this is the really weak part of my argument and I tend to say it very fast).
For example - I continue - if I am driving, and someone cuts me off so that we only narrowly avoided an accident, swearing is appropriate. You guys don't drive, so - no swearing for you. That said, if you drop a heavy thing on your toe, like that time Mommy dropped the pickle jar on her finger, you may loose the hounds. If you find yourself stranded on Mars like Mark Watney in this book, you are allowed to use the f-word like he does. Are we clear? Ok then. No pottymouth in front of Grandma.
What, specifically, did they love? They loved the astronaut's sarcastic optimism in the face of outrageous odds and they were fully invested in the human drama of the NASA scientists attempting to make contact with Mark and bring him home. In fact, they insisted that we listen to it again on a ten-hour drive to the beach. "I'm not catching all of this chemistry and technical stuff, so it'll be good to listen to it again," said Ezra. "Besides, Dad hasn't heard it yet!" said Milo.
The reader, R. C. Bray, is quite good. I was a little worried at first by the big, sort of butch HERO voice he was using for the astronaut, but as the book progressed he sounded more and more natural. I think that might have been a conscious choice on his part - as Mark spends more time alone, his log entries become more idiosyncratic and open, and the voice relaxes to match. Bravo, R.C. My only quibble is - oh please, readers, don't do an accent unless you are STUPENDOUS at accents. NASA administrator Venkat Kapoor sounds like a Latino Yoda at times.
But by the time we were three-quarters through the book, his cast of character voices, including two women, were so believable and distinct it was like listening to a full-cast recording.
So it turns out, I was right - The Martian is as appealing to Mythbusters fans as it is to homegrown Beltway-bandit engineers and their offspring. I have been recommending it right and left. And my son's first adult book is one that we will never forget.