Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir
The Martian by Andy Weir
Crown, 2014
Cover art by Eric White

The Martian by Andy Weir is brilliant. That’s one word I try not to overuse or water down—brilliant. This novel earns it.

It’s the story of an astronaut, Mark Watney, a member of the Ares III mission to explore Mars, who gets stranded on Mars when the rest of his crew abandons the planet and believes him dead. On his own in an environment lethal to life, Watney must find a way to survive with only the equipment and supplies left behind. If he can survive, he also needs to find a way to get back home…

This xkcd comic sums it up perfectly:

xkcd.com provides an image source URL for hotlinking/embedding, so I assume permission to use it here. Also: Read everything Randall Munroe writes because he's a genius.

There’s an age-old formula for how to structure compelling stories: “First act—Get your hero up a tree; second act—throw rocks at him; third act—get him down.” The Martian is a master class in how to throw bigger and bigger rocks, and drive a character farther and farther up the tree. The stakes and the suspense just keep building. The worst-case scenario just keeps getting worse.

Mr. Weir spins a tremendously engrossing story. But the real key to this novel is that it attains a level of hyper-realism almost unmatched in the SF genre.

It’s difficult for me to find the right words to describe how much I love this book. I would rather shoot myself in the foot than have to choose between The Martian and Ready Player One (my other favorite novel from the past couple of years).

And then I’d hobble off with The Martian.

RP1 is a near-perfect ode to the nerd and geek culture that I grew up in and belong to. But I’ve always been a scientist at heart, and The Martian, more than anything else, is a book written for scientists. It’s an ode to engineers and the people who figure out how to make stuff work.

RP1 is a book written for my people. The Martian is a book written for me.

It even has my sense of humor. I have the sense of humor of a well-educated, intelligent, and dirty-minded 12-year-old. That’s Mark Watney’s sense of humor in a nutshell.

So The Martian shares my love of science, my love of space, my love of exploration, and delights in the same sort of juvenile snarky jokes I do. All wrapped up in a suspenseful story of extreme survival.

The only thing it’s missing for it to be fully me-in-book-form is a strong dose of philosophy. This is actually something other people have noted about this book (and also, now, about the movie): None of the characters in this story indulge in big picture, “What does it all mean?” reflections. At no point does the story flirt with any sort of spirituality or larger philosophical implications. This is something which sets it apart from most other stranded / left behind / survival stories.

This is also what makes the character of Mark Watney completely believable to me. Watney is an engineer and a practical scientist. He deals with his situation the way an engineer and a scientist would. He faces each challenge as it arises and deals with it as best he can. Survival occupies all of his attention and energy.

All of the characters in this book are scientists and engineers (plus one media relations person). They all deal with their jobs accordingly. Shoe-horning philosophical musings or existential crises into a book populated by these characters would ring false. Mr. Weir knows scientists and engineers well. He knows how they think, how they approach the world, what makes them tick. He nails it with this story.

There’s only one slightly sour note in the book and it’s minor. There’s a perspective shift at the very end which is awkward and unnecessary.

The book is divided into three different narrative threads which interweave each other:

  • Watney on Mars;
  • NASA back on Earth;
  • Watney’s crewmates on the ship, Hermes, headed home to Earth.

Watney’s story is told in the first person, as a personal log he’s keeping of his ordeal. The parts with NASA and the rest of the Ares III mission crew are told in the third person, as a more conventional narrative.

The shifts between these first and third person perspectives are necessary. The first person perspective emphasizes Watney’s solitude. It heightens the intimacy and the sense of isolation, thereby raising the stakes of his situation. In contrast, the third person perspective captures the team effort undertaken by NASA and Watney’s crewmates to rescue him.

The book concludes, though, with a couple of pages that are written differently than all that precede them: the story focuses back on Watney, but from a third person perspective. It’s the only time third person narration is used to tell any part of Watney’s story thread.

It’s awkward. It’s a strange shift to encounter right at the very end. I think I understand why Mr. Weir chose to write the ending this way but I don’t think it works, and I don’t believe it’s necessary.

However, this is such a minor hiccup in an otherwise stellar novel that I can’t bring myself to hold it against him.

After I finished The Martian, I felt as though I’d been waiting for this book ever since Kim Stanley Robinson wrote his genre-defining Mars Trilogy. That it fills a need I hadn’t even realized I had. Robinson’s work marks the moment in SF when stories about Mars could no longer be Burroughs- or Bradbury-esque fantasias. After Robinson, writers had to deal with Mars using up-to-date, hard science. As we’ve explored Mars in more depth and detail, as our understanding of the planet has become more granular, it stands to reason that our stories about Mars become more intimate, more personal, and even more realistic.

Perhaps it was inevitable that a novel like The Martian would come along to take the crown as the reigning standard for Mars stories.

Inevitable or not, I’m very happy that it did.

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