I’m (finally) going to see Ridley Scott’s adaptation of The Martian tonight. In honor of that occasion, I am posting my review of the original novel. I’ll post a review of the movie early next week.
The story of The Martian is simple. Mark Watney, a botanist on a mission to Mars, is accidentally abandoned by his crewmates when the mission goes south. Watney then has to figure out how to survive with the materials the crew left behind. However, the story is also deceptively original. This isn’t a book about the first manned mission to Mars (we have plenty of those). This isn’t about colonizing Mars or finding signs of life. If I were to compare it to any recent sci-fi story, I’d say it reminds me of the recent film Gravity, another survival story.
As noted by other reviews, this book is tech-heavy. Andy Weir obviously did his homework and the book is brimming with scientific jargon. However, the jargon isn’t just background or filler. Much of the plot revolves around Mark Watney’s desperate struggle to survive and to do so he has to use his botanical and engineering expertise to overcome a variety of problems. This isn’t an action/adventure story, but rather a story about man using his ingenuity to survive. The science is integral to the story.
For many readers, it might become overwhelming, and admittedly Weir does sometimes go on technical binges. However, more often than not I enjoyed Weir’s attention to detail. He is great at creating realistic crises for the characters and then finding realistic solutions. If anything, I felt the solutions came a bit too quickly. Too often, Watney encounters a problem, and then devises a solution after the next section/chapter break.
Weir plays around with the points of view for the story quite a bit. The first 15% of the book is told exclusively through Mark Watney’s mission logs. This style generally suffices, but as discussed below I don’t think Weir ever develops Watney’s character enough to make the mission logs engrossing. After that first 15%, the narrative jumps around between NASA flight control, the crew on Watney’s ship (the Hermes), and back to Watney himself. Most of the story is still told through Watney’s logs, but I think the novel becomes more dynamic when we get multiple points of view. So, my advice is to stick with the book until you’re at least 20% of the way through before giving up on it.
The one major weakness of The Martian is that Weir doesn’t provide enough characterization to make the characters feel real. Weir’s approach to characterization seems to be to give each character one trait or tic with which we can identify them (so Mindy is young, insecure, and says “um” a lot). This is less bothersome for the ancillary characters, such as the rest of the ship crew or the NASA staff.
However, for Mark Watney, the lack of character depth is glaring. Watney has a few traits, such as his sense of humor (which actually provides quite a bit of comic relief) but beyond that he seems a bit one-dimensional. We don’t actually learn much about him as a person. Despite being stuck on Mars for almost two years, he generally seems upbeat and level-headed (except for one brief scene). He doesn’t seem to have any tastes, interests, or history of his own. He dislikes disco and 70s shows, but we never really learn what he does like. He doesn’t seem to miss his family or friends on Earth. We don’t even find out his motivation for joining the Mars mission (not an obvious choice for a botanist). Overall, Watney comes across as more than a plot device than a human being.
I didn’t expect to enjoy The Martian as much as I did based on reading the first 10% of the book. But when I got to the last page I found the whole experience to be eminently satisfying. The Martian is easily one of the most creative sci-fi novels I’ve read in a while. The fact that Weir doesn’t take any shortcuts with the science gives the story a greater verisimilitude. I could even see this book being assigned to NASA candidates for a manned mission to Mars. Definitely recommended for fans of hard sci-fi.