I don’t remember where I first heard of Andy Weir’s The Martian. Probably online somewhere. Still, I remember thinking that it sounded like an interesting premise (one of the first astronauts on Mars accidentally gets left there? Intriguing), and made a mental note to check it out if I had the change. Then I kept seeing the name pop up from time to time and that mental note became “definitely check it out at the library.” So I started checking for it. No dice. It was out every time.
This took my interest level almost to an all time high (seeing said trailer discussed in the strip lead to the final peak) and I knew I had to read it. So I went down to my local library and placed a hold, thinking to myself “I can wait.”
Turns out, I didn’t have to. Amazon put it on a week-long Kindle sale for $1.99 (a sale I am sad to say has ended already) and, being the broke author that I am … I bought it.
Turns out, this was a good thing. When I cancelled my hold at the local library, they helpfully noted that I was number 158 in line. Yeah. This book has attention. I wanted to read it all the more. Saturday and Sunday—my weekend break—came, and I cracked it open.
And now I’ve got thoughts.
I’ll sum it up right here for those of you who are impatient: I had a blast reading the The Martian, and you likely will too. Most of you. If the XKCD strip above made this book sound interesting … I’d hedge my bet that you’re probably going to enjoy reading it. You’re already sold on the problem-solving angle of the book. And trust me, there’s a lot of that.
For those of you who aren’t quite so sure that’s your cup of tea, now I’ll break it down a bit more. This may sway you one way or the other. If you like the sound of it, you can go find a copy (don’t pirate; support the author!). If you don’t like the sound of it, well … Sorry?
Anyway, so, The Martian. It’s Science-Fiction. Hard science fiction? How hard? The kind of hard where the author (who admits to being a bit of a nerd) worked out all the data. Orbital mechanics and intercepts? Worked out. Acceleration in zero-G? Worked out. Botany? Worked out. There are no magic hand-waves (or hammerspace guns, *cough cough*) here. The science is real.
Right. So some of you might be asking “What makes it Science-Fiction then?” Easy. It’s on Mars. That’s right. The red planet.
See, The Martian takes place a hop and a skip into the future, with NASA right in the middle of its third manned mission to Mars. The six-person crew, all excited and ecstatic to be there, is a week into their mission, doing all kinds of experiments in a habitat called—fittingly—the Hab. Again, it’s all very hard science: the details of the materials, including how they work and why they need to, are all very solid.
Of course, the book doesn’t just dump this on you. No, for a book that explains so much science, The Martian does a great job of confining its infodumping to moments where you need it. Rather, The Martian opens right where it needs to: scant days after the disaster.
See, much of the book is told via the primary character Mark Watney’s journal. In the opening moments he gives us the rundown: An evacuation was ordered due to a storm. He was hit by a stray dish torn free from the Hab and swept off. His suit was damaged, his team assumed he was dead, and they all evacuated as ordered.
Leaving him alone. On Mars. In a habitat designed for a 30 day occupancy.
And it’ll be at least 700-900 days before a rescue team can reach him. If they even realize he’s alive.
And this is where all that science becomes important. You can probably guess the rest of the book’s contents just from that pitch (which in part is one reason why the book is so successful). Mark Watney becomes a Sci-Fi Robinson Crusoe … trapped on Mars, not Earth. Suddenly every machine, every scrap of spare material, every battery, every bit of food … It all becomes an instrument in Mark’s survival. He needs food. Water. Air. Some way to contact Earth.
Right. I think you get the point. Now, what about the execution?
Actually, it’s pretty good. The writing serves the story well (with a few small exceptions). The majority of the story is, as I said, presented in journal format. So, a first-person, direct account. Which, thankfully enough, does not reduce the tension. Early on it’s made very clear that there are a wide variety of ways for someone to suffer slow, unfriendly death on Mars, and Mark is determined to keep a record even if he’s doomed. So there are a lot of moments where you aren’t sure if he’s going to make it or not.
Anyway, Mark’s reaction to all his trials is where a good chunk of the hard science comes in. Earlier I mentioned that the infodumps come when you need them. Mark is the vehicle for those. He gives the reader his plans, then gives them the information that led to him making that decision, explaining his survival in a step-by-step progress. Which doesn’t get boring, thankfully, because Mark is both a bit of a joker and a bit cynical, and often cracks about how many ways what he’s trying to do can go wrong, usually with some detail on how exactly that would end things for him very, very badly. Also, you know, he’s trying to survive on Mars, so it’s a bit like Junkyard Wars meets Survivor and a How Things Are Made documentary. If that sounds exciting, go buy this book. You’ll love it.
Now, humor. Mark is a bit of a joker. If this story were from the view of another character, I could see it running afoul of dry writing or storytelling. All the information, all the dangers … but Weir use Mark’s character to provide comic relief throughout the entire story (and even what could be a little wish fulfillment as Mark thumbs his nose at safety standards that, from his perspective, just really don’t matter much anymore). Random pop-culture comments, digs and sarcastic disbelief at his own situation … the story resonates with them, keeping the longer moments between the life-or-death scenarios from becoming dry or dull.
All right, you’ve got the idea. There’s a lot of good reasons to like The Martian. But what about weak points?
Well, it has them. No book is perfect. The book shifts perspective types when it moves to characters other than Mark—like his teammates on their way home, or the NASA team back on Earth—and to be honest, sometimes it felt a little jarring. Especially when on a few occasions the book jumped out of Mark’s first-person PoV to take an on an omniscient, third-person perspective to talk about a specific event … and then went back to Mark’s view. Granted, it only did this a few times, but it still pulled me out a little. It was jarring.
Also, if you’re looking for flowery prose, you will not find it here. Lots of humor, yes. Cool science? Yes. Cool solutions to problems with science? Yes. But you aren’t going to find gorgeous prose. Then again, The Martian doesn’t really need it. It’s utilitarian writing, as befitting its setting and story. But if you’re looking for sentences that make you weep with joy for the beauty of ink … Yeah, no.
But you don’t need to. The Martian accomplishes what it set out to do perfectly fine: tell the story of a man fighting against Mars.
And if that prospect alone interests you, then head down to your library or bookstore and give The Martian a look. It’s a whole lot of fun.
Oh, one last thing, for those curious. Content rating. I’d say … PG-13. There’s some definite strong language, a few references to sex, and some toilet humor. Other than that … it’s mostly survival and suspense.