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BOUND TO PLEASE / If you're marooned on Mars, duct tape comes in handy

The Japan News

By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterThe Martian

By Andy Weir

Del Rey, 369pp

In Japan, if you miss the last train home, you may have to spend the night in a capsule hotel. On Mars, if you miss the last rocket home, you’ve got much bigger problems.

Astronaut Mark Watney has huge problems.

Andy Weir’s exciting novel “The Martian” describes what happens when a near-future manned expedition to the Red Planet is cut short by a violent sandstorm. Five of the six astronauts make it to the escape vehicle, but Mark is struck by flying debris and appears to be dead. Protocol for the situation is clear. They leave the body behind.

But Mark was merely injured. He awakens to find he has set a new record for human solitude: He has an entire planet all to himself, and no way to communicate with anyone back home.

Fiction writers sometimes describe the elements of a basic plot as chasing a character up a tree, throwing rocks at the character, and then getting the character out of the tree. In other words, creating a tense situation, heightening the tension, and then resolving it.

Well, there are no trees on Mars. But there are plenty of rocks.

As Mark puts it: “If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of these things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.”

The Hab he mentions is a round-roofed structure supported by internal air pressure — like a tiny version of Tokyo Dome — meant to shelter six people for one month. To use it for more than a year, Mark has to improvise constant modifications and repairs, patching it up with the proverbial paper clips and strings — plus one non-proverbial material.

“Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.”

He gets excited about the little things, but a sense of humor is key to his survival.

“The Martian” is a highly realistic novel. Everything Mark does appears to be technically possible. This makes his story fascinating as well as suspenseful, especially as Weir confronts his character with many problems beyond air, water and food. He leaves no rock unthrown.

But the realism also means our deep-space Robinson Crusoe has no Friday to share his adventure. If a little green sidekick did appear, he’d probably be named Sol, the word for a Martian day.

Conveniently, one sol is 24 hours and 40 minutes, so adjusting his body clock to local time is one problem Mark doesn’t have.

But you may have to adjust your own body clock as you stay up late to find out how on Earth — or how on Mars — Mark can survive his increasingly harrowing predicament.

Best place to read

In a capsule hotel, where sleeping in a plastic box is a great way to simulate space travel. (Snores from adjacent capsules may mar the illusion of being truly alone.)

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