What does a person do when they are all alone with no one else to depend on? With the world and the universe conspiring to get them at every turn? When all hope is seemingly lost?
That’s the problem faced by the two protagonists of the last two novels I read.
Mark Watney of The Martian by Andy Weir and The Old Man of The Old Man and the Wasteland by Nick Cole.
Both are terrific reads and I look forward to re-reading both at some point in the future when I’ve forgotten how great they are.
But anyway, let’s get back to the topic at hand – a man struggling against nature, alone in an inhospitable world. Both books have this in spades, but the approach they take is decidedly different.
Let’s begin with The Martian.
I’d been told for the last few months how great this book was. I guess I missed out on the Andy Weir as an Indie writer bandwagon, and that great bright orange cover seemed to be taunting me whenever I paid a visit to Amazon to browse. Finally I decided the $9.99 price point wasn’t too big of an obstacle and pulled the trigger.
I started reading the book on a Friday afternoon and was finished the next evening. With my schedule these days, that is a ridiculous timetable, but it was truly one of those books that as soon as I started reading, I had a difficult time putting down. Andy Weir tells an excellent story here; the closest reading experience I had to this was Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.
(and to tell you how much I loved that book, I can tell you there is a time period each year that I set aside just to read and lavish in RPO…)
The Martian is a near-future story about a man who gets stranded on Mars and is forced to survive “off the land” so to speak. With a planet trying to kill him at every turn, the character of Mark Watney could have turned out to be a bitter and jaded man. Alone on an alien planet with death around each corner. I don’t know how I would have survived, but thankfully Mark Watney was not me. Watney is an engineer and botanist. In spite of the surroundings, he makes it work for him with plenty of humor along the way. I can’t tell you the number of times I chuckled to myself or flat-out laughed out loud at Watney’s crazy stunt on the barren surface of Mars.
If this was written as a “true story,” I would have believed it. It is that good.
Throughout it all, there is a general Apollo 13 vibe. Bad things are happening and just when you think Watney’s in the clear – BAM! – Mars is out for blood. But, there is a lightness to the tone and a feeling that something good will come out of this story no matter what. The ending isn’t a guarantee by any stretch, but you find yourself rooting over the final few pages for him to make it.
Compare that to Old Man and the Wasteland.
Obviously there is a tonal shift between the two. While Weir takes a serious yet lighthearted tone, Cole evokes Hemingway mixed with Cormac McCarthy. Bleak and desperate.
It’s been 40 years after the bombs struck the cities of America. One by one they fell until all that was left was desolate and feral. The Old Man (we don’t get a name) goes on a journey of survival and (to him) necessity from Yuma to Tucson in Arizona. Before he even encounters any of the remnants of civilization, the man has to overcome the stark landscape and the lack of water. When he bests his environment, turn after turn, the world is trying to defeat him. We see the world through his eyes and realize while he is old and grizzled, he is comparatively sane in the insanity all around him. The ones left behind after the bombs have mostly become unrecognizable as humans and are therefore aspects of a lethal environment trying to do him in at every chance.
Nick Cole does a masterful job painting a post-apocalyptic picture using a lens borrowed from Hemingway while adding in his own 21st century elements. I enjoyed this book immensely and the ending is poignant and will pull at your heart.
Both of these books are fascinating looks at what a man will do to survive in a deadly environment – one on a planet 35 million miles from Earth, the other on an unfamiliar wasteland in a poisoned future. While Watney has his situation thrust upon him suddenly, the Old Man takes his journey 40 years after the bombs. Both are a terrific view of Man V. Nature and what will come of it and that’s the beauty of these books.
Both The Martian and Old Man and the Wasteland are 5-star reads. Both are vastly different, but take us places unexpected and thrilling.
Both times I started reading these two books, I mentioned on Facebook I was reading them. Both times I had friends tell me they were “jealous of me reading them for the first time.” I understood completely. A few weeks ago, my brother read RPO for the first time and I felt the same way – wishing I could read it all again and the little discoveries and joys when my eyes read the words for the first time.
Buy these books. Read both of them. You will not be disappointed.