Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2022 Evelyn C. Leeper.

ARTEMIS by Andy Weir:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/18/2014]

Given how wildly successful his book THE MARTIAN has been, ARTEMIS by Andy Weir (ISBN 978-0-553-44812-2) has been eagerly awaited. However, as is common with most authors whose first book was a smash, this second book is disappointing. But even if it were not being compared to THE MARTIAN, it would still be disappointing.

The main problem, as I see it, is that while Andy Weir can write a character who is a white male science nerd (actually, in THE MARTIAN almost all the main characters are science nerds), he does not do a very good job of writing a Muslim woman smuggler. (And for that matter, Rosario Dawson does not do a very convincing job of portraying one on the audiobook.) Because ARTEMIS is told entirely in the first person, this is a major problem, making everything sound false.

Another problem with second novels (other than unreasonably high expectations) is that quirks of language or attitude that you attribute to individual characters in the first novel can turn out to be representative of the author. If this is the case, one starts looking at them with a different eye.

For example, in THE MARTIAN Mark Watney says, "So far the rover and my ghetto life support are working admirably." His use of the word "ghetto" as an adjective in this sense seems to tell the reader something about Watney, but when Jazz Bashara refers to "a ghetto airlock," the reader realizes that it is not saying anything about Wayney or Bashara, but about Weir. (This is re-affirmed when one reads an interview with Weir in which he says of his website, "It's a very ghetto website.")

And I had some quibbles with the science.

And what's with "little girl" stuff? In THE MARTIAN, when he was pulled into the airlock with two broken ribs, Watney says, "I muted my mic and screamed like a little girl." In ARTEMIS, Jazz says at one point, "I giggled like a little girl." (She then notes that she is a girl, but even if we accept that she thinks of herself as a girl rather than a woman, she is not a little girl.

And a science quibble: Weir writes, "Before the temperature could get up to the patch's melting point of 1530 C, everything that could melt at a lower temperature had to melt first. And the melting point of the smelter walls was 1450 C. So, even though the patch was thin and the smelter was thick, the bottom of the smelter would give out before the patch got anywhere near its melting point. Don't believe me? Put ice water in a saucepan and cook it. The water temperature will stay at 0 C until the last ice cube melts."

This assumes perfect heat conductivity. In fact if you put ice water in a saucepan and cook it (presumably on a stove burner), the water in the bottom will get hot while the top still stays cool. For that matter, when a pond freezes the top freezes while the water below is warm enough to stay liquid and support life.

THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/18/2014]

THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir (ISBN 978-0-8041-3902-1) is a throwback to the engineering story of the classic Campbell-era ASTOUNDING/ANALOG. (Well, other than the use of the "F" word in the first sentence.) Mark Watney was a member of the third Mars mission, but he has gotten more than he bargained for. A sandstorm has necessitated the abrupt departure of the team, but Watney was skewered by a collapsing radio antenna which punctured his suit, his body, and his bio-monitor computer. So not only has the rest of the crew seen his suit punctured and his body skewered, but all the read-outs from his bio-monitor have dropped to zero. Ergo, they assume he is dead, and leave without him.

Except Watney is not dead, and THE MARTIAN is about how he struggles to survive on Mars. It is indeed "Robinson Crusoe on Mars", but without the cute monkey and the aliens. Similar to Robinson Crusoe, he has materials to work with--Crusoe had the contents of his ocean ship as well as the ship itself; Watney has the contents of the mission's habitat as well as some other materials used by this and other missions.

(One suspects that this was written the same way the James Bond films were written. In the Bond films, the scene in which Q hands over all the gadgets is written last, when the writer knows what gadgets are needed for the plot. It would not surprise me to discover that Weir would come up with a problem, figure out how to solve it with nothing too outre, and then make sure such items were available. (E.g., he could explain away some spare solar panels, but not an entire spare habitat structure.)

THE MARTIAN is very accurate. The problem is that you have to be a real engineering geek to enjoy it completely. For example, there are detailed explanations of how the equipment regulates carbon dioxide, nitrogen, oxygen, humidity, and so on. On the other hand, one can skim these parts and still enjoy the story.

This is yet another example of a science fiction novel (a hard science fiction novel, no less!) published outside the usual genre publishers, and aimed at the mainstream rather than the genre market. And that such a book is being aimed at the mainstream says something. One could claim that this is a science fiction novel in the tradition of the film GRAVITY, and that both are evidence that hard science fiction has broken out of the "ghetto" of the science fiction marketing genre.

(It was published "in different form, as an e-book in 2011," I think it is quite possible eligible to be nominated for a Hugo for its 2014 publication.)

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/27/2016]

I listened again to the audiobook of THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir (read by R. C. Bray) (ISBN 978-1-491-59016-4) and a few new thoughts occurred to me.

SPOILERS ahead! Do not read further if you have not read the book. Even the movie is not enough--some of the points discussed are not in the movie.

The hero of the book is Mark Watney, but arguably second place would go to Rich Purnell. Though it does not come out as much in the film, in the book it is clear that Purnell is on the Aspberger's spectrum. What is interesting is that it is not a plot point at all--no one talks about it or comments on it. That is just his personality, the way Jack Trevor or Mindy Park have their personalities.

When Watney takes the laptop outside, the liquid in the liquid crystal display "either froze or boiled off." But how did the laptops get into the Hab to start with. They couldn't have been sent on one of the supply rockets--they apparently had no protection against the cold or the vacuum. And they apparently survived the Hab decompression as well. (And Watney specifically says everything in the Hab is designed to survive a decompression.)

The same question exists for the Sharpies, though those might have been in a vacuum pack. since Mark was more concerned about boiling off than freezing. The potatoes are another question--even if they were brought on the MDV, how did they get to the Hab without freezing? (And how big was the MDV that there was room for potatoes?)

After the Hab explosion, when Watney climbs into his one-armed suit, how does he put his helmet on? Given that the helmets seem completely detachable, he can't just tip it forward and latch it. And he also has to be able to take it off one-handed.

Someone should make a list of all the times Watney survives because of sheer luck. Clearly his initial survival falls into this category, but there are many more. The Hab explosion, for example, happens when the potatoes are just about ready to harvest, rather than when they are still immature. (He also gets stranded before the crew has eaten the potatoes.) Martinez happens to have a wooden cross and Johansson has an ASCII table on her laptop. Watney gets lost and runs into a crater; climbing the crater to choose a direction is how he discovers the sandstorm.

Another question: when the rover and trailer roll over, the trailer ends up upside down with its nose pointed downhill. Watney decides to flip it over its nose, which means when he is done, it is pointed uphill. He says nothing about any attempt to drive the rover around it so that the rover is in front of it again, yet it seems very unlikely that it would have all the same connectors at both ends. (That the trailer's tow hook was undamaged implies that the tow hooks are at the back of the vehicles.)

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/02/2017]

As with any novel, if you read THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir (ISBN 978-0-553-41802-6) enough times, you start to find contradictions. For example, on Sol 34, Mark Watney says, "Nothing to be done about the heat. There's actually no air conditioning in the Hab." But then on Sol 39, he relates his plan to leave the Hab for a short trip and says, "I can lower the Hab temperature to 1-degree C..."

In his log for Sol 33(2), he says, "NASA put a lot of effort into making sure nothing here can burn," and he is forced to cut up a wooden crucifix to start a fire. But then on Sol 97(2), he says, "I have limited paper to work with." On Sol 201, he says, "Using a funnel made from a piece of paper..." and on Sol 387, "I even made a model out of paper."

Laptop displays either freeze or boil off in Martian atmosphere (Sol 98(2)). When the Hab blew (Sol 119), Watney should have lost any laptops in it, yet he doesn't mention this. By Sol 388 he mentions "three remaining laptops", so I suppose they might have been in the Rover at the time rather than the Hab, but that seems unlikely.

(None of this addresses the unlikely in the novel. For example, when every ounce counts, NASA sends enough multi-vitamins "to last years." (Later, he says he has double what he needs for four years, so that's eight years' supply for one, or sixteen months' supply for the entire crew for their thirty days on Mars.) A thirty-day mission for six people should give him enough to last six months--a year at the outside. And why do the meals have five times the amount of protein needed? And one more word: sandstorm.)

THE MARTIAN (book and film) by Andy Weir:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/18/2017]

We recently watched THE MARTIAN and read THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir (ISBN 978-0-553-41802-6) for our book-and-film group. While I have commented before on the book several times now, I found interesting some of the questions about the film from people who had not read the book.

For example: Rich Purnell (who develops a new strategy for saving Mark Watney). In the book, he is developed enough as a character that we understand that he is on the autism spectrum. His behavior in the film makes sense if you know this, but without foreknowledge of it (or unless you are a good guesser), his character makes no sense.

There was also some discussion of the ethnic backgrounds of the characters. Venkat Kapoor (definitely an Indian name) became Vincent Kapoor (and half Indian and half African, because he was played by Chiwetel Ejiotor). Mindy Park was read by most people (including Weir) as Korean, but definitely was not Korean in the film. Weir himself says he never specified their ethnicities.

Annie Montrose is also considerably less strident in the film version (probably because the filmmakers had to clean up the language to get a PG-13). And a lot was omitted from the film: the second dust storm (and indeed most of the journey), the loss of communications, the equipping of the rovers, etc. The rover (singular) in the film had no airlock, and instead of a second rover, there seemed to be something more like a flatbed trailer. The hab airlock is much larger than in the book, in which Watney complained about how little dirt he could bring in at any one time, and also described as the size of a phone booth. (How does Watney even know what a phone booth is by the time THE MARTIAN takes place.) His shovels are also larger, and the mission goes a few days longer on Mars before they abort (for no reason I can tell).

The retrieval plays out differently, and the film adds a final sequence taking place several years after the rest of the story.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/16/2018] It seems as though every time I read or listen to THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir (ISBN 978-0-553-41802-6), I find more things to question.

"I have about 1500 hours worth of CO2 filters." At the expected 4 hours per person-day, they would have needed 4*30*6, or 720 hours worth, so they have a 100% margin, and Watney has enough for 4 hours a day for 375 days. (Watney uses "days", so I will also, even though they are technically sols.) He stays for 549 days, and does not seem to run out, so he must have averaged about 3 hours a day. Actually, if the first six days of the mission had them using filters at the expected rate, Watney actually had only an average of 2-1/3 hours a day for the remainder of his stay. Given the amount of time for EVAs to search for the array, dig up dirt, repair the Hab, modify the rovers, send messages, and clean the solar cells, this sounds low.

It apparently sounded low to Weir as well, since by Sol 69, he has Watney modify his statement, saying "I started this great adventure with 1500 hours of CO2 filters, plus another 720 for emergency use." This is an increase of almost 50%, and would have given the original crew enough for 12 hours a day each! Watney claims to have used 131 hours, leaving 2089, or enough 87 days' worth, which is says is plenty. Clearly the arithmetic indicates that he means that the original team and he have used 131 hours (else the 2089 figure is wrong). But it must be wrong, because if a team of 6 for 6 days and an individual for 63 days used only 131 hours, then each person would average only about 1-1/3 hours a day, and Watney has certainly been doing more than this. Even if he means he has used 131 hours in 63 days, that's still only a couple of hours a day.

In any case, the 87 days' worth (or whatever the number would be) does not mean enough to last him 87 days at his current rate, but is simply the conversion of 2089 hours to days.

If the team used 144 hours in 6 days, then Watney started day 7 with 2076 hours. If he used 131 hours in 63 days, then he is using roughly 2 hours a day and should have enough filters to last him about 1000 days. As noted above, this sounds like a low usage rate, but there is enough for him to last the 549 days even at twice that rate.

One thing I think I noticed before but have not commented on is how at some point Weir seems to have decided that he did not want to continue with the same level of detail he had been maintaining, so Watney's log jumps first from Sol 211 to Sol 376, and then from Sol 389 to Sol 431. That's basically six months the first time and a month and a half the second. For those following all the minutiae of Watney's converting the rovers, this is rather disappointing.

The geometry of Watney's avoidance of the storm is wrong. He finds himself at the western edge of what he assumes is a circular storm that is traveling west. He determines that the storm is weaker to the south, so heads south with the plan of going around it. When he gets to a point where he is out of the storm (based on solar cell efficiency), he says, "With the storm moving perpendicular to my direction of travel, it means I'm south of the southernmost point of the cloud (presuming it's a circular storm...). I can go directly toward Schiaparelli, [which] is almost due east" But that is not necessarily true. If the center of the storm was now directly north of him, yes, but assume it isn't, and also assume it has not moved so fast as to be completely past him. On a Cartesian plane with the current center of the storm at (0,0) and a radius of 1, Watney could be at (-.8, -.8), be completely out of the storm, and yet re-enter the storm by going due east.

Where is Watney going to sleep on Hermes? Martinez has already abandoned his room because of the heat leak, and says Watney's is no better. He was sleeping in an airlock because that was the only place left until Lewis had Beck and Johanssen double up. But that only worked because they were a couple and Johanssen was very small. I'm sure after the rover and the pop tent, Watney won't mind sleeping in a small space, but it seems like the problem was that there was no place not in everyone's way. (Although I would think "the Rec" would be out of people's way at night, which is when he would be sleeping.)

To summarize what I have commented on before:

05/27/2016: How were the laptops transported to the Hab without having the LCD display "either freeze or boil off," and how did they survive the Hab decompression? Similarly, what about the potatoes?

05/27/2016: How does he put his helmet on (and later take it off) in his one-armed suit?

05/27/2016: The geometry of the roll-over seems wrong; doesn't the trailer end up pointing in the wrong direction?

06/02/2017: Watney first says there's no air conditioning in the Hab," but later says, "I can lower the Hab temperature to 1-degree C..."

06/02/2017: Watney says nothing in the Hab can burn, but later talks about the paper that he has, which he uses for messages, a funnel, and a model.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/15/2018]

Yet another nitpick in THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir: Watney says a rover battery gives it a range of 45 kilometers, so taking the battery from the second rover to swap in gives the first rover a range of 90 kilometers. This is true for his trip to get Pathfinder, because he takes only one rover. However, for his trip to Schiaparelli, he hauls the other rover behind like a trailer and both are filled with heavy equipment and supplies. In spite of this, he still has a range of 90 kilometers.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/05/2020]

I just re-watched THE MARTIAN for the first time since 2017 and I was surprised at how much of Andy Weir's book they had left out that I had forgotten that they left out: the death of Pathfinder, the sandstorm during his trip, the rover flipping, not to mention many small things. And of course all the info-dumps about planting potatoes, calculating battery power needed, and so on are gone. I've listened to the audiobook many times and watching the movie again made me realize how much all the missing material added to the story. And, of course, they changed the ending in a couple of ways: who goes out and what Watney does. Also, Watney's "voice" in the book (not his actual vocalization, but his style in his logs) was very distinctive, and considerably reduced in the movie. The movie is good, but it's no substitute for the book.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/26/2021]

I know you're probably all bored to death seeing me write about THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir (ISBN 978-0-553-41802-6), but in this case I will be talking about the major differences between the novel and the movie. Some I can see the necessity for, but others seem just arbitrary.

One of the arbitrary ones is that in the film the storm takes place on Sol 18 rather than Sol 6. Another is that he asks Lewis rather than Martinez to check on his parents.

Other changes are more understandable. A feature-length film cannot have the detail of a novel, so some events have to be deleted. Watney never seems to lose contact with Earth once he gets Pathfinder working. (Admittedly, we do not see or hear of much communication after Watney starts on his journey.) A lot of detail of his journey are omitted, e.g., how he navigates, or how he designed the "rover train". For that matter, his "rover train" is very different from the book--the roof hole is in the (front/only) cab, and the trailer is just a flatbed. The Johanssen-Beck relationship is barely shown. Most notably, Watney doesn't drive into a sandstorm and he doesn't roll the rover.

The airlock explosion is quite different. First, the airlock is much larger in the film than in the book. In the book, the airlock is the size of a phone booth. In the film, the airlock is large enough to hold the entire crew with room to spare. As a result, Watney has plenty of room to move almost everything out of the HAB to make the farm, and to easily bring in the soil. Oh, and he has a full size shovel rather than just a sample trowel. After the farm dies, Watney empties the hab of the dirt rather than leave it there (obviously easier with a huge airlock, but still ...), and uses what appears to be plastic sheeting to cover the airlock hole rather than hab canvas.

The airlock explosion is less critical in the film: he is able to tape up his helmet fairly easily, has no breaches in the rest of the suit, doesn't need to roll the airlock, and does not have only a very brief time to get a new helmet and suit.

In the book, he is clear that he uses only his own "manure" for the farm, so catching diseases from it is not possible--he already has all those microbes. In the film, he brings all the night soil in, including that of the other astronauts, but that has been freeze-dried, so there is no possibility of contamination.

The hab in the movie is far more luxurious, with more substantial beds, paper manuals, etc. But he claims nothing is flammable--are the manuals flame-retardant? It turns out that even in our own time, NASA has developed a paper from stone that will not burn.

I am still annoyed that Mindy Park is not Korean and Vincent Kapoor is not Indian. I am also annoyed that someone else tells Mindy to check the photos of the base, rather than having her discover it on her own.

And while I'm nitpicking, the second lecture of the Great Courses' "Birth of the Modern Mind" describes Aristotelian scholasticism. One aspect is the appeal to the past, as in, "If we have believed this for centuries, we would have found any flaws by now, so it must be true." But then Professor Alan Charles Kors says that we still do this and that it makes sense. His first example is asking what would happen if a teacher of freshman geometry presented Euclid's five axioms and some student said, "Wait a minute--how do we know those are true?" Well, we would say the student was Riemann or Lobachevsky and was about to discover non-Euclidean geometry. The other examples (Kepler's laws of planetary motion or Newton's laws of thermodynamics) may be a bit more secure, but they also said that about Newtonian physics until Einstein came.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/13/22]

I love THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir, although I have often nit-picked various details (e.g., at one time he claims he can't make the hab cooler, but at another he drops the temperature to one degree centigrade).

But I just saw RED PLANET for the first time since its initial release in 2000, and was surprised to see how much Weir took as inspiration. One of the most obvious is that the crew in RED PLANET travels to the Pathfinder rover site, takes the radio from Pathfinder and repairs it in order to communicate with the ship in orbit. On the ship Bowman is told to tune to the old, no-longer-used frequency because Earth can see what Watney ... I mean Gallagher, is doing. (In THE MARTIAN, Watney uses the camera and later text to communicate, while in the film it's voice communication from the start.) And Gallagher returns to the ship in a craft never intended for that purpose, and is brought to the ship by Bowman going out on a tether and manually grabbing his craft.

There is also a powerful storm with sustained winds over 100 miles an hour which is very dangerous. In RED PLANET, there is at least the excuse that algae have been generating oxygen, which would presumably increase the air pressure (and temperature) somewhat (though not enough to let the astronauts open their helmets and breathe the air directly, as they do).

Weir published THE MARTIAN in 2011. It is not unreasonable to think that he had seen RED PLANET ten years earlier, and some of the ideas stuck with him.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/02/2021]

PROJECT HAIL MARY by Andy Weir (Ballantine, ISBN 978-0-593-13520-4) is the third book from Weir, the first two being the wildly popular THE MARTIAN and the less popular ARTEMIS. He has returned to a white male science nerd as his protagonist, a wise choice, given that his female Muslim smuggler in ARTEMIS was less than totally convincing. Write what you know, they say. And on the whole this is more successful than ARTEMIS, though (inevitably) not as good as THE MARTIAN.

It is, however, much in the mode of THE MARTIAN, with Ryland Grace in a desperate attempt to save not just himself, but all humanity. Without giving too much away, he is faced by one problem after another, requiring that he "science the sh*t" out of them.

And here is the real problem, for me anyway. If you recall, in February I complained that Kim Stanley Robinson's THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE had too much infodump. Well, the quantity in PROJECT HAIL MARY is not necessarily too much, but the level of detail is excessive. While Mark Watney felt that he was speaking to an audience at least partially comprising non-scientists, Ryland Grace has no such scruples and goes into detailed and at times incomprehensible explanations of what he is doing. (I also think that there is a definite bit of hand-waving to get the story going, not unlike the impossible sandstorm in THE MARTIAN. Again, I'm not saying what.)

But clearly there is an audience for this sort of thing. Greg Egan is an obvious example; he is known for putting detailed mathematical descriptions of the physics of his stories on his website. Weir just skips the middle step. And if I skimmed the parts that were too detailed, the plot was engaging. I would definitely recommend this for fans of the Robinson and Egan "diamond-hard SF", but even if you are not, if you skim judiciously, this is an enjoyable book.

I do have a criticism about the book's cover, though. The title has the words "HAIL MARY" and Weir's name in letters nine times the size of those of "PROJECT" (three times as high, three times as wide). Looking at the cover on a small screen, I was constantly reading it as just "HAIL MARY". Who thought this was a good design? [-ecl]


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/13/2018]

The decisions in HISTORY'S WORST DECISIONS AND THE PEOPLE WHO MADE THEM by Stephen Weir (ISBN 978-1-4351-1174-5) are among the worst, or at least many of them are, but various constraints have led to a set that are not really the fifty worst decisions. First of all may have been the marketability of the book. Of the fifty decisions, twenty-four are from the 20th century and eight are from the 21st. (Obviously part of this is also that there is more historical documentation for more recent events.)

Some of the choices are just peculiar. Why choose Gerald Ratner's bankruptcy over Pickett's Charge? And on the one hand he talks about how people should have put more lifeboats on Titanic, or a tsunami warning system in Indonesia, but then ridicules the Y2K preparations. The argument that there were no Y2K disasters might mean that the preparations were unnecessary, or it might mean the preparations helped prevent problems, or it might mean the preparations might have been a reasonable insurance "just in case".

Weir also seems a little shaky in his history. He claims the Arabs had invented the concept of the number zero; actually, it was almost definitely the Hindus. And he seems to attribute to Aelthelred's sobriquet "the Unready" its modern meaning, but in this case "Unready" comes from the Old English "unraed", meaning "poorly advised" and is a play on words on his name "Aethelred", which means "well-advised".

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