Andy Weir’s The Martian sucked me in like a black hole.
The book is a really quick read—the definition of a page-turner. (I read the book in two days; my girlfriend in one). And for a debut novel, the book is a truly impressive effort. The film version, directed by Ridley Scott, comes out in five or six weeks and clearly has a lot of money behind it–just take a gander at the cast. Anyway, the book is a bestseller and, with the film on the way, it obviously has some mainstream appeal, which turns out to be one of the things I like best about it.
The primary protagonist, Mark Watney, has been abandoned on the surface of Mars. His crew, thinking him dead, left in a hurry because of a powerful incoming dust storm. He wakes up alone, light minutes from earth, with nothing but the abandoned habitat and equipment and his own ingenuity to help him survive. The premise is Robinson Crusoe in space—it’s not exactly original. Despite this, Weir manages to build a suspenseful and exciting survival tale that revolves almost entirely around Watney’s scientific brilliance—in fact, The Martian’s greatest strength is the science. Watney is a botanist by trade, but utilizes chemistry, astrophysics, thermodynamics, even geography in order to survive.
For example, he has to create drinkable water from hydrogen and oxygen, both elements he first has to get by engaging in some very dangerous chemical separation processes. He also has to figure out how to grow food on a dead planet since the soil on Mars has literally no bacteria to help plants grow. Then he has to find a way to jury-rig a radar dish in order to communicate with NASA. All of this while dealing with leaks in the pressurized habitat, electrical issues, problems with the oxygen producers, etc.
Unsurprisingly, this is where the author is most brilliant: he is able to communicate a huge amount of chemistry, botany, and orbital dynamics, among other things, while maintaining the pace necessary to maintain the reader’s interest. Because of its mainstream appeal, I think this book is a great way to communicate the importance, the value, and the ingenuity of science to the general public (and even to younger readers). I read somewhere—I haven’t been able to relocate where—that Andy Weir said he wrote the book as a “love letter to science” and that love is obvious while reading it. There are no unnecessary protestations thrown towards the skies, simply a rational, scientifically-minded individual using his knowledge of science in order to survive. Hopefully, the book will help create a larger mainstream interest in science and combat the ignorance so pervasively spread in the US by anti-science groups.
There are, however, a few problems with the book. Much of the character development in the book is relatively shallow. It’s understandable in some ways. The book is a thriller, which makes it hard to create and develop characters with real depth, while cranking up the pace to increase suspense. To his credit, Weir attempts to do so, but the methods he uses end up falling mostly flat.
One example that really stood out during my reading was Lewis, the commander of Watney’s Ares Mission. Supposedly, she is obsessed with 70’s TV. During his time on Mars, Watney finds her stash (left behind) and watches Three’s Company, Happy Days, and whatever else he can find. Which is all good (and occasionally funny). I know people that really are obsessed with time periods or cultures almost to exclusivity. There’s nothing wrong with that. But when we finally meet Lewis herself, there’s a disconnect. When she’s given page-time, she’s boring, undeveloped, and far too serious. Her love of 70’s TV ends up seeming like a gimmick that has nothing to do with the actual character.
Again, we see a similar thing with Annie, the PR representative for NASA. She is introduced and within the first few pages on the page, she is cursing and grumpy all the time. I have no problem with cursing, but making that a defining trait of a character just doesn’t work. There needs to be more thought put into her development, not to mention more subtlety.
Unfortunately, this is the main problem with Weir’s characters. Each has their own “tic” or detail that defines them. Johanssen likes Agatha Christie novels, Vogel’s simply German. Creating character is like making an illusion of a real person. It’s hard to make them feel real on the page, because people are complex creatures. Sadly, Weir’s attempts to make unique, complex individuals just end up a thin veneer of character that falls flat.
Watney himself is the most developed character and has a distinct voice. Weir needed to follow the same pattern with there rest of the cast, to focus on making the characters’ mannerisms and voice distinctive on the page.
Moving on, the plot itself is suspenseful, the pacing is good, and for the most part, Weir overcomes the problems with doing most of the novel in “journal” format. I won’t go into detail (I don’t want to spoil anything), but the climax and the denouement is where he loses it. It’s as if Weir just got tired and wanted to get the damn thing finished. Several of the final struggles Watney faces just get resolved with too much ease (and less creative science than earlier on). The ending itself is just abrupt, and Watney’s final thoughts are hackneyed and shallow.
Ultimately though, I think The Martian is a really worthwhile read. There are issues—the climax and the resolution, several shallow characters, some cliched dialogue—but nothing that ruin what is good about the book. There’s a lot of cool science, some great suspense, a really interesting protagonist, not to mention a cool visual setting. It’s a quick and fun read for those who enjoy science and could create a more mainstream audience for science and this type of science fiction, which is always an admirable goal.