‘The Martian’: A Landmark Change In How Sci-Fi Is Written

Unless you’ve been living under a rock on Mars for the last few hundred “Sols”, you most likely have heard about the book “The Martian” by [Andy Weir]. It’s not often that we here at HAD will give a book recommendation, but there are so many cool little things going on here, that we just had to share it with you fine folks. We’re not going to give anyway any spoilers here. But be warned that the videos at the bottom do, and we would like to encourage the comments to be spoiler-free.

So why did this book catch our attention? Well, first off, it was self-published online, one chapter at a time by a really great writer. And as the people following his work grew, the author started to get more and more feedback about the story and technical details. He would then go back and make revisions to the work based on his audience suggestions/corrections. Does that remind you of something? Maybe a bit like the Open Source movement? Of course writers have worked with their audiences to help maintain continuity from one novel through each of its sequels. But this is fundamentally different, the audience becomes a creative force that can time-travel to rewrite the unfinished story’s… story.

The Second thing that grabbed our attention is that this is a book written by a fellow geek. See, [Andy] is a programmer by trade and in writing this book, rather than just making up dates and flight paths of spaceships, and he actually wrote software to do real orbital mechanics, so that the book is as accurate as possible. If you love reading technical details, while being very entertained by a great story (what Hackaday reader doesn’t?), this is the book for you.

If your hands are too busy with a soldering iron, we can also wholeheartedly suggest the audio book, as the performer does an amazing job. Or if you want, you can just wait until the movie comes out in October. We can’t guarantee Hollywood won’t screw this up, so you’d better hedge and read the book beforehand.

Thar’ be spoilers below. We’re including the movie trailer after the break, as well as a talk [Andy Weir] gave at Google where he shows the software he used while writing the book and several other spoilers and details.

39 thoughts on “‘The Martian’: A Landmark Change In How Sci-Fi Is Written

    1. Ditto! I read it about 6 – 8 months ago (don’t remember exactly), and loved it… more recently, I was thrilled when Randall did a comic on it mentioning that it was to become a movie (I don’t get out much and don’t watch previews, so this was the first I had heard of the movie).

      Here’s to hoping that the movie actually ends up being decent. :-) Regardless, the book is highly recommended.

    2. Even my completely non-techincally-minded girlfriend loved the book. It’s written such that the technical stuff is explained in easy terms without being condescending or childlike. Weir got the balance perfect.

      I can’t wait for the movie. There are so many people who should be absolutely perfect for their role, infront and behind the cameras, that I’m completely avoiding watching the trailers because I don’t want to over-hype the movie in my mind and end up disappointed. Needless to say, I don’t think there is a single person I don’t think is the best fit for director, writer, or actor.

  1. I’d stumbled across the audio book and listened to it on my own… it was so good that I shared it with the family on a long drive… even my non-geek wife loved it! That gives you an idea about how well it was written.

  2. It is clear Weir didn’t understand certain aspects of microbiology at first when writing the book, but thankfully to community support he corrected himself by the end. I highly doubt a botanist would make these mistakes so I was slightly annoyed at the beginning of the book but satisfied with the end result. Can’t elaborate more without spoiling anything but it definitely is a great one sitting book you can read in a couple of hours.

  3. It was a fun read, but it is kind of like MacGuyver x100 — too many long shots just work out for him.

    I don’t think this is a spoiler because it isn’t a very important point. At some point he has to hook up a drill to the base’s power supply, but the base is 36V and the drill is 28V (or something like that), and the drill draws 9 amps. No problem, he’ll just wire in a resistor. Two problems: the voltage drop will be current dependent, but let’s look past that — maybe the drill can run on 36V. The real problem is that the atmosphere of mars is 1% that of earth. I’m not sure how his 70 watt resistor is going to dissipate that much heat in a near vacuum. Such a resistor is possible, but he is very unlikely to have it — it would have to depend on radiation or conduction, rather than convection cooling.

      1. What format did you read it in, Tobias? The audiobook I listened to definitely had the same problem JIm B brought up. I just told myself that it really was a step-down of some sort and Watney just didn’t feel like bothering with the difference in his journal.

    1. Fine screw it, the book sucked there I said it, this one of many problems, resistors do not change voltage…, The primary problem being you cant burn hydrazine in an enclosed hab space and expect to live more than a day afterwards. Thirdly being the bacteria will not die simply from being frozen.

      The guy should stick to computer science and leave the rest of the sciences happily untouched. His failure in these areas really make me question his orbital dynamics understanding and the program he wrote to determine a continuous burn to mars.

    2. There wouldn’t really be any problem running a 28 Volt drill on a 36 Volt source, because there is enough tolerance in the electronics to handle such a mismatch. An actual handheld drill operating nominally on a 28 Volt battery would actually need to work with voltages between 34 – 22 Volts as the battery’s state of charge chances, which means that hooking it up to a 36 Volt source would only be 6% over the design parameters. In practice, it would work just fine.

      If you were to bring such a drill to Mars, you’d build it tolerant to a vast range of input voltages in the first place so there would be no need for any McGuyverism. Just plug and play.

  4. I was at a meeting of a science fiction club in early April. The guest was a film critic with a bunch of SF trailers.

    The odd thing is he had a trailer for the Martian where everybody except the main character were dead. Obviously, this is not the story nor the current trailers. He gets the trailers from the studios as part of their promos to professional film critics.

    I have read the story – really a fantastic story, with excellent technical details and humor sprinkled throughout. Yes, there are some places where he narrowly escaped death && managed to recover. But -NASA does train its people very well, and choose people with top science skills. I am sure there are times the astronauts do sometimes get a bit tired of the babysitting by NASA, like when he just went ahead and fixed the equipment. He does follow the steps given him when he really needs to.

    I am really looking forward to the movie. And kudos to Hackaday for recognizing the story, where hacking saves the main character.

  5. I finished this book outside of our bedroom at 3 am in the morning after I went upstairs, brushing my teeth and then thought a hell, just two more pages … man my feet hurt like hell but it was worth every single page and every minute of reading.

  6. All right, you’ve convinced me. I saw it the other day at Costco, read the summary, flipped over a few pages, didn’t look all that interesting. But, now, I’ll pick up a copy the next time I drop by.


  7. So loved this book. I bought this via audible and listened to it over a weekend roadtrip by myself. It kept me so entertained I couldn’t wait for the drive back to finish it.

  8. Perfect timing on George’s part – I picked up the kindle version of The Martian last week, and got pulled in bigtime. Seriously, it was a joy to watch Mark get himself out of all the near death situations he got himself into. I ended up burning though the book in a day, and enjoyed every minute of it.

    1. I know hey! When I saw it was Matt Damon playing the lead in the Martian you couldn’t help but think “Don’t go back guys – didn’t you learn anything from last time!!”

      I loved the book – I wanted MORE details – how did he work out how many calories he needed for example.

      Interested to see how much they have to cut out to fit it all into 100 minutes of movie time. It’s already essentially a montage, so I’m not sure how they can “fast forward” too much.

      1. general calorie requirement for your average human, factoring general stuf like what job he has (on account of the amount of physical labor) is known, and i assume nasa would educate their astronauts on that topic, given the very tight margins of error when you have limited storage space and fuel to burn. I think for an astronaut this topic is sort o common knowledge, at least to the degree of precision where yoyu can make ballpark fermi estimations like that

  9. I’ve watched the trailer >10 times so far. I don’t want to read the book until after I see the movie since it always spoils the movie if I do it the other way. I can appreciate both that way. The local library has the book so I waitlisted it a while back and hope the movie makes it first.
    I love the trend of science fiction being “science” fiction continuing the trend picked up by “Interstellar” (also Matt Damion??), not fantasy or horror.

    1. Ha! I find that interesting why you think that way. In so, that I’m 180 degrees from that. If it’s something I think I’m going to like, I’ll read the book first to get the “real” story. Hollywood often fails at getting things right – not to mention details.

  10. At the risk of being a lone negative voice, I feel that this book is really weak in terms of characterisation. The lead character speaks like any generic American and seems to undergo no appreciable personal crises – he lacks his own voice. His scattered mental state only manifests when he tells the reader he feels upset or annoyed – but this has no bearing on his unrealistic attempts at survival, which always seem to work perfectly when he needs them to. How can a reader be invested in the survival of a character who is so flat and one-dimensional? The book is supremely unrealistic and the only draw card is the technical exploits of the protagonist, though even they are based on a misunderstanding of basic scientific principles. The story is nothing more than a tedious, linear progression of obstacles which present a characterless protagonist who never experiences any real challenge, and which are overcome in the same way that one would unlock stages in a videogame tech-tree.

    As for the episodic publishing of the book, this is exactly how old serial novels were published – nothing novel there. The author’s spotty research on the sciences presented in the book upsets me – to me it seems that he would rather write what he wants and let the audience correct him, which is the lazy way out. It’s popular because it harnesses the desire of it’s readers to be in situations and solve them with their hacker mentalities – this is a clever way to write a popular book that gets lots of attention and even a Hollywood deal, but is unfortunately not a clever way to write a ‘good’ book. If you are looking for a riveting plot with plenty of adversity that characters overcome through sheer doggedness, I would advise you to look elsewhere. But if you are looking for an university Engineering assignment which just happens to have a faceless, generic reader-insert stumbling around inside – this is it.

    1. I’m a little with you there [squelch]. I appreciated some of the aspects of the book, but I got halfway in and it was just so formulaic. I think it’s hard to show personal growth when solving a technical problem. The character faced a life threatening problem, got past it, wash-rinse-repeat. He needed to face some more emotional hurdles to conquer to show emotional growth. “Oops, hardware broke, lets trouble shoot a problem” didn’t work for me for a whole novel. I put it down for a month after about halfway through then would do a chapter a day or so to finish it. I almost felt like it could have been a few chapters in the beginning, a quick summary, then a few chapters at the end and nothing would have been lost.

  11. I read the book and loved it, it was a real page turner. One minor concern, seeing as Matt Damon is in it, the director should have changed the character’s hometown to Boston. It’s a non-critical difference, and I think it would fit, considering that it’s Matt Damon.

  12. As someone on hackaday.io with an aeroponics project – the moment I saw the trailer with matt damon claiming to ‘science’ stuff by proceeding to spread soil and farm, I was not impressed. It was poorly researched because NASA doesn’t use soil to grow in space.

    1. If you liked The Martian, then you will surely love Neal Stephenson’s new novel, “Seveneves”. Came out in May. 800 pages worth. I blasted a week on it and finished it – I had to put it down occasionally because I had to eat, sleep and do some work. Otherwise it would’ve been a sleepless marathon. Great book written by an established author who has been a great supporter of science and technology for a long time now.

  13. Haven’t read it yet, but the comment in the article about publishing one chapter at a time, then editing with readers’ feedback…how is this new? Fanfictions has been doing this for years.

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