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The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy WeirReview: The Martian by Andy Weir (Crown, 2014)

If you haven’t already heard or seen countless reviews raving about The Martian then you’re reading the wrong newspapers, surfing the wrong websites or hanging around the wrong water coolers. And guess what? They’re all right on the button. This is one of the most insanely addictive books I have read for years, and I really mean for years. It was glued to my hands. Don’t even bother reading this review, just go and buy it now, strap yourself into your comfiest chair with a pot of coffee next to you and enjoy the ride. Then come back and see if you agree with me.

Mark Watney is an astronaut privileged with being part of Ares III, the third manned mission to Mars. Part engineer, part botanist, he was selected as much for his personality as his intellect, his sardonic sense of humour helping to bond and calm teammates during times of crisis. Unfortunately he’s also one of the unluckiest beings on the red planet. Mere days after landing the mission is aborted due to a storm, forcing the crew to evacuate from their habitat to the lander vehicle for immediate take-off. En route a detached antenna striked and impales Mark, separating him from the group and causing him to become lost in the swirling sands. The damage to his suit disrupts its signalling ability – the crew now reading zero life signs. After brief but extremely painful deliberation they realise they have no choice but to leave him for dead.

But he’s not dead…

A combination of physics, NASA engineering and extreme coincidence leaves Mark able to return to the habitat they abandoned and, after some minor panic and disaster, restore everything to working order. There’s a minor problem though. He has food. He has water. He has oxygen. But he has enough to last for roughly one year, and the next scheduled mission will be there three years after that. He’s screwed. He’s one tenacious Martian though and refuses to give up, utilising every ounce of problem-solving power he has. NASA doesn’t send idiots into space and Watney’s resourcefulness is the most vital life-saving tool he has. Soon his life coalesces into two distinct priorities – restore some form of communication with Earth and figure out how the hell he’s going to outlast his supplies and avoid unexpected catastrophes for the next 1,300 or so days.

Right, I’m not even going to pretend to find fault with this book. Andy Weir is a bloody masterful writer, dragging you right into the cabin with Watney so it feels like you’re peering over his shoulder at every turn. You’re jumping out of your seat at every minor victory and covering your eyes and groaning when the fates fuck with him. And despite the very technical nature of the problems and solutions involved, Weir takes great pains to make sure it’s accessible to the lay reader as well as interesting to those with some knowledge of the science and mechanics in question.

Comparisons to previous works, especially movies, are easy to make. Yes, it’s Apollo 13 meets Castaway, no doubt about it. It’s MacGyver in space for sure. Hell, anything involving constant peril and/or isolation could be added to the mix. But in the end it’s a truly original story told in a wonderfully engaging way. I honestly can’t think of a single person I know who wouldn’t get something out of this book, whether from its scientific grounding, its sheer enjoyability as a page-turner or from the over-riding message of persistence, endurance and hope running through it from start to finish. It says a lot that Chris Hadfield, star astronaut formerly of the ISS, gave it his own ringing endorsement.

In short, books like The Martian are rare and precious. Read it now before Hollywood does something horrible with the movie rights like giving it to Micheal Bay…

Note – I have since discovered that Weir was initially given the cold shoulder by publishers and released the title for free on his website. Word of mouth led him to create a Kindle (bleurgh) edition for $0.99 and only then did it attract a deal from Crown. I love this, yet more proof that free availability leads to bigger and better things.

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Fiend by Peter Stenson

Fiend by Peter StensonReview: Fiend by Peter Stenson (Crown, 2013)

Ask anyone to name the three best TV shows of the past five years and I can pretty much guarantee that Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead are going to occupy two of those slots (with Game Of Thrones in the other). The meth-making exploits of Walter and company as well as the gruelling slog for survival against the undead have both firmly lodged themselves in the popular psyche. It seems then only natural to ask, what would happen if these worlds collided? Meth-heads versus undead? Thanks to Peter Stenson that question no longer resides in the realm of late-night pot-fuelled ramblings.

Chase Daniels was a Twin Cities white boy of privilege who  threw it all away to follow the path of crystal meth, abandoning family, study and work for a life of low-level dealing to support an ever-growing habit. Slumming it with his waste-of-space friend Typewriter (seriously), he wakes from a week-long, housebound trip to oblivion to hear a dog barking in his front yard. Investigating he witnesses a young girl approach the near-rabid beast, only to lunge at it and tear it’s throat out. Convinced he’s hallucinating on account of the drugs, Chase retreats inside the house, only to be pursued by the blood-soaked, giggling monster. Terrified and cornered, Chase and Type end up killing the child, torching the house and fleeing the scene, convinced they’ll soon make the news for murdering some poor family’s daughter while in the throes of meth paranoia.

Hours later and the blood is still on their clothes but something’s wrong. The streets are deserted. Where is everyone? An encounter with a kill-crazy, chuckling, Russian webcam sex operator (deceased) and a conversation with one of her former clients soon confirms the worst. The dog attack was no hallucination and the child was no innocent. The world has descended into a madness far worse than any head trip. Chase and Type are now confronted with two problems. Firstly how to survive the attacks of the giggling zombie hordes, and also how to ensure they can get their increasingly urgent meth fixes in a world apparently without people?

That’s as much of the plot as I’m going to give away but Fiend is so much more than that. Of course on the surface the concept is a ridiculous blend of horror and the darkest of humour. And yes, you can take it that way, but I only used the Breaking Bad/Walking Dead references to draw you in. Fiend is not so much a zombie/meth survival comedy as an almost unbearably bleak and intense examination of the nature of addiction and its effect on our psyches. Faced with the end of the world, Chase and his fellow survivors never for a second deviate from their true primary goal – the next fix. All other concerns are sidelined in favour of the pipe or the needle and friendship has value only inasmuch as it will lead to another rock.

This is never portrayed more clearly than in the narration itself. The entire book presents itself from Chase’s viewpoint and the writing moulds itself to his current mindset. Immediately following a fix he’s a hive of mental activity, sentences bursting out rapid-fire, jumping from one idea to the next. As the high recedes and the cravings return his thoughts, and hence the text, become darker, less coherent, more paranoid. This creates a truly unsettling experience for the reader, dragged along by Chase’s neuronal activity and at the mercy of his habit.

Of course there is plentiful humour to alleviate the tension and it is truly necessary. Without the incredibly dark humour splattered throughout Fiend it would be an almost impossible read. As it is Stenson keeps the atmosphere only just light enough to allow the reader to continue without choking on the addiction, violence and betrayal which spill off the pages. At least he does until the climax which will leave you feeling like you’ve just intentionally pounded your skull with a hammer for a couple of hours.

Cards on the table time, Fiend is hands-down one of the best books I’ve read in a couple of years. From the first few pulse-racing pages it snatches you up and proceeds to force you through an emotional grinder before crushing you under its heel like a cigarette butt at the inevitable and cruelly abrupt ending. It’s relentless, violent and horrifyingly real but nonetheless thoughtful, intelligent and beautifully written. It’ll raise your heart rate, crush your faith in your fellow man, make you examine every possible source of addiction in your life and still entertain you. That’s something special.

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