All right, let’s get something out of the way right now: yes, I know that this was the big “It Book” a couple of years ago and I should have gotten on the bandwagon then. But what convinced me to put this on hold at the library was the trailer for the movie version, which looks awesome. I decided to read a book only because there’s going to be a movie, and it’s not the first time that’s happened. Fight me.
Mark Watney is one of six astronauts on a Mars mission. While he and the rest of the crew are on the planet, there’s a massive storm and the crew evacuates. In the confusion, Watney is separated from the group and injured, and they are forced to leave without him. When he wakes up, Watney finds himself alone on Mars, with no way of contacting NASA and only a years’ worth of supplies in his shelter. Because he knows it’ll take years for a potential rescue to arrive, he has to figure out a way to survive by himself on, as he might phrase it, a planet that wants to kill him.
In other reviews, I frequently see this book pitched as Robinson Crusoe in space. Which is very accurate, but I think that this xkcd comic explains it even better: “You know the scene in Apollo 13 where the guy says ‘We have to figure out how to connect this thing to this thing using this table full of parts or the astronauts will all die? …The Martian is for people who wish the whole movie had just been more of that scene.”
It feels weird to praise the worldbuilding of a speculative fiction book, but that’s exactly what Weir is doing with The Martian that’s so impressive. He didn’t just have to think of all the potential problems a person stranded on Mars might encounter, he also had to come up with solutions to those problems. And this isn’t like Daniel Defoe, who could at least do research on other people who had survived after being stranded on deserted islands – no human has ever been on Mars, ever, much less been stuck there for several years. Let’s pause and appreciate how much thought and work went into thinking through every aspect of Watney’s situation.
The book is structured primarily as log entries, with Watney updating us on the day’s problems and events. And just when this becomes in danger of being repetitive, we cut to the ground crew at NASA. And we also get scenes of Watney’s crew, who are still in the satellite station. This is a smart move – if we only had Watney’s voice, the book would have felt claustrophobic and boring, and adding additional characters to the mix helps keep the book from becoming a monotonous slog.
It has to be said, though, that all the characters who are not Mark Watney are not particularly interesting. Granted, I probably could have read an entire book from Commander Lewis’s perspective, but she’s the exception to the rule. The people at NASA, in particular, are essentially interchangeable. There’s the dude who’s like “We have to do this incredibly risky thing” and the dude who’s like “No, it’s too risky!” and the lady who’s like “The computer is doing this thing!” and that’s pretty much everyone. Also there are two characters named Mitch and Rich, and fuck me if I could tell you anything about either of them. But the other characters aren’t really in this book to function as fully-fleshed people – they exist as exposition mouthpieces, talking the reader through whatever problem has just come up, and reminding us occasionally of the stakes.
Because of this, Watney has to do all of the heaving lifting in terms of three-dimensional characterization, and luckily he’s up to the challenge. Mark Watney, plainly stated, is a delight. He’s equal parts relentless optimism and “well this fucking sucks.” Even when he’s stating plainly to the reader that everything is terrible and that he will probably die, he remains unable to lie down and give up. Every single day is a struggle to continue fighting, and at its core, The Martian is a story about humanity’s absolute refusal to give up hope. The fear of death is a powerful motivator.
And it doesn’t hurt that Watney’s narrative voice is so great. Even in the midst of all the science shop-talk (which I did not understand a word of, naturally) he maintains a matter-of-fact tone and will usually break things down into layman’s terms. And he’s just fun:
“I need to ask myself, ‘What would an Apollo astronaut do?’
He’d drink three whiskey sours, drive his Corvette to the launchpad, then fly to the moon in a command module smaller than my Rover. Man those guys were cool.”
Verdict: four out of five stars