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The Martian

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Having watched the film The Martian recently I got Andy Weir's original novel from the local library yesterday morning and have just finished reading it. Yes, that's why I read library books, because it would cost me five pounds per day to buy paperbacks to match the speed at which I read. That may well explain why I don't give much consideration to word counts when writing either. In that time I did also sand down and paint the bathroom door as well as watching many hours of television, so I only did the reading part of the time. I have been known to finish reading a novel on the same day that I get it when given an uninterrupted opportunity.

I recommend the book even if you've seen the film. It is extremely humorous and very well written. It also demonstrates an aspect of writing that some here on WF are inclined to avoid, first person story-telling. Much of the book is written as logs kept by the main character himself and the story demands enormous information dumps which cannot be avoided. Also much of the drama is not in what happens but what might but doesn't, not always anyway. Hence the old tenet "show, don't tell" isn't applicable and the story relies to a great extent on the author's skill at story-telling. Personally I think this is good learning experience for any novice writer because if one can't tell a story well one is unlikely ever to be able to show one well either. Furthermore, one sees on WF questions about how to avoid information dumps when dealing with subjects that require them in some form. The answer, as demonstrated in this book, is not to avoid them necessarily but to make them interesting as this author does. Hence this book demonstrates that there are few universal rules to good writing and one must choose a style that matches the subject well.

One technique that the author uses to temper the information dumps is to intersperse humour, which also reminds the reader of the psychological pressure that the main character is under. This struck me as similar to my own style of throwing in corny jokes throughout my writing, as I do in my everyday speech as well actually. I had considerable empathy with the main character and thought that this was down to the quality of the writing, but then realised that there was more to it than that. The truth is that I am in a way in much the same predicament as that character.

I am now some fifty years away from the 1960s and early 1970s, the heyday of my youth. That is a long way with no real chance of getting back there, but I have planned a nostalgic trip with as little chance of success as the "Martian's" chance of returning home. That is my HoneyPi Project , an attempt to build a replica of the computer that I worked on back then. The key aspect of this project is that I am trying to use original components as far as possible to be authentic. Here in the twenty-first century fifty years out, in this I am a time traveller with only the things that came with me to help me achieve the objective and make the nostalgic trip back.

It is true that, like the Martian, I have had some success in my excursions to find additional resources from past missions from that time and have even encountered a few other time travellers able to help me out in this, but those situations are exceptional. Sitting in my workroom, my time capsule from the past, my thoughts follow similar lines to those of the Martian. Will some vital irreplaceable component fail, eliminating any chance of success? Do I have enough of each type of component to last the course? Can I fabricate substitutes if not? How can I use things for purposes other than the ones for which they were designed? I feel the same gratitude as the Martian to the original designers that so much actually is interchangeable and versatile in its application. I treat reference manuals like religious texts when I have them. I reach out for advice and information through my computer to distant people. Apart from that I am alone.

I look around at the makeshift electronic equipment festooned across the walls and do calculations to work out how I can provide enough power to make it all work at once. Every time that I turn on the power I wonder whether this time something will go very wrong. I worry about unusual readings on meters and peculiar smells. The equipment truly is makeshift. Here is metalwork from our garage door mechanism, there ceramic tiles with an identical pattern to those in our kitchen, unsurprisingly. I have invested many hours of work in making the simplest things with inadequate resources in very cramped conditions. My workroom is probably even smaller than his rover vehicle inside.

Perhaps there is one way in which I differ from the Martian. He was appalled that the only music available to him was disco from the seventies. Like him I have my computer playing music as I work and it is very likely to include disco, but that is because it is from my home era, where my angel and I first met and married. Of course it includes Stayin' Alive by the Bee Gees and Abba's Greatest Hits amongst many other things, but I have no objection to that whatsoever.

Yes, he may be a space traveller, but time travel has all the same problems, hence my empathy with him. It's a good book.

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  1. Winston's Avatar
    My next temporal excursion will be the acquisition and restoration of a mid 1970's Ford F-150 truck. A much easier challenge than yours or Watney's.

    We all reach for the stars. Or the spark plugs. Or the vacuum tubes.
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