Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
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The other day I really wanted something to do that would give my eyes a break from focusing on things right in front of them. So I looked for audiobooks, and remembered that I’d been planning to read The Martian – mostly because of this comic and its hover-text:
Particularly interesting because that’s XKCD, by Randall Munroe, who used to work at NASA.
Anyway, it’s great. Can’t think of another book that has hooked me so utterly in one, brief opening chapter. Not through any unconventional literary trick, it’s just a quick summary of the narrator’s predicament: stuck on Mars, presumed dead, probably will be.
The Martian does three things I really, really like:
Get to the fucking point: I don’t need to know what Mark Watney looks like, I don’t need a scene-setting prologue of what his daily life was like before this, I don’t need to be shown how much he loves his wife and kids in order to see him as human. If this book is about an interesting situation, get to the interesting situation. The Martian starts there.
Explain the mechanics: if this is a problem, why is it a problem? If the obvious solution won’t work, why won’t it work? If Watney thinks X is the best plan, why is it the best? What’s wrong with Y? Could X go wrong? What’s his plan if it does? The Martian goes into rigorous detail on all of this – figures, equations, scientific principles – probably too much for some people, but it’s catnip for me.
One of the reasons I love games more than other media is that the best ones have consistent rules, so extraordinary feats or miraculous triumphs actually mean something. Watney’s solutions to his endless problems feel clever because the problems are presented within a set of rules we understand, and the solution is one we didn’t see. I have no idea if they’re realistic, but all I need is that they’re understandable and internally consistent.
Have a likeable character: The Martian’s not really about character – Watney is just smart and resourceful to ridiculous extremes, and the book is more interested in what he can do with that than in examining his flaws and complexities as a person. But Watney’s also the narrator, so it matters a lot that you like him. His tone is most of what sold me in that opening chapter: he describes his uniquely dire situation in brief, clear and relatable terms, then jokes about how dead he is. That’s more or less the tone throughout – occasionally he finds it a little harder to joke about, but not for long.
In another predicament, this chipperness might undermine the stakes, but being stranded on Mars sort of takes care of that by itself. The utter isolation, the impossible distance, the brutal hostility of the planet, all come with a strong emotional payload. Whenever there was a twist in his fate, I found it surprisingly affecting just because of the dizzying magnitude of the problems involved. Jesus, imagine being that far from earth and losing your only source of X. I don’t need Watney to mope about it to feel the scale of the problem. The facts alone send a shiver down my spine.
The book does have a few problems:
The audiobook also has a lot of audiobook-specific problems – I’d advise going with the text version if you have the choice:
Apparently it’s £3 on Kindle? On the one hand, wow, I really profoundly got the wrong edition here, but on the other, it’s two days later and I’ve listened to the whole thing, because I could do it while I cook, cycle, exercise, shower or anything else. Audiobooks are great. People should definitely stop reading them like idiots.
William Russell: Well I just bought it on the basis of your description. Lots of people are going on about it at the moment, naturally, but I hadn't read anything that made it truly sound like a good read. Plus £3 is naff all so it can rot on my kindle and I won't have lost much.
Thanks for the rec.
LKM: I also listened to the audiobook version, and apart from the criticism you mentioned (particularly terrible performance of women's voices, though there aren't too many of them throughout the book, which, otoh, also ties in with your criticism of some of the book's odd sexism), I think it worked really well. I guess in part because the Mars parts are first-person present-tense POV narration, so the immediacy of the audiobook version makes it sound like somebody is really thinking through things right at that moment. As Watney, the narrator also does a fantastic job conveying emotion.
So personally, I'm glad I listened to the audiobook version. Of course, YMMV.
Adrian: Bollocks to the audiobook I'm afraid. The DRM on Audible means I can't use it on my chosen operating system, or on my mp3 player. There are MP3 CDs but they charge more for the privilege, and I'd have to wait for them to be delivered like some kind of primitive... ;-)
Frank: Tom, I think you'll love this interview :)
phuzz: I only read it a couple of months ago, and I don't know why I hadn't picked it up before because it's right up my street. I reaaaaaaallllllly enjoyed it, but I think even non-science/space/mars geeks will enjoy it.
I might even go see the film at the cinema, which is unusual for me.
NDgeek: Only tangentially related, but your "Get to the fucking point" statement made me think of a song...Tripod's King Kong:
Jabberwok: I agree on the cuts back to Earth, though I feel those might be partly responsible for the story's ability to work as a Hollywood flick. They are easily digestible because of their unoriginality, which is weaker in a literary sense, but perhaps easier to turn into a screenplay. Haven't watched the movie, though.
Personally, I took the occasional offensive comments as probably par for the course for the culture Mark came out of, so they didn't bother me. Maybe they ate outdated, but not being an astronaut, I have no idea.
PaleShakta: Sorry, I read *significantly* faster than it's possible to talk intelligbly. Audiobooks are for multitasking and/or other people. (Although you seem to like it because you multitask a ton, which is entirely reasonable. Try not to electrocute yourself while listening in the shower.)
Phil: The other unbearable things the audio book narrator does is pronounce ASCII as "A-S-C Two"
Tom Francis: Oh God, I probably heard that and didn't even realise what he was trying to say.
Question: Wondering why there are trees in the picture if on Mars?!? Otherwise a cracking film and a great book too.