The Martian by Andy Weir

For decades we’ve dreamed of Mars. Even before the first human set foot on the Moon, there were people looking to the next step, to landing on another planet. The possibilities of that distant red rock seemed extraordinary.

The Martian is a story about that dream turning into a nightmare. Mark Watney, an astronaut on the third manned mission to Mars, finds himself stranded and alone. How can he survive in this bleak environment? Will he ever get back to Earth?

It’s a book perfectly pitched to grab readers’ attention, with its sci-fi take on Robinson Crusoe. Even the cover is an attention grabber. Only released this spring, it’s already creating a big buzz of conversation among sci-fi fans. So what’s with this book?

There's another cover out there, but I picked the pretty one
There’s another cover out there, but I picked the pretty one

 

All about the science

The Martian is a story firmly grounded in scientific know-how and the challenge of engineering. Weir has clearly done vast amounts of research, which he uses to create both plausible challenges and unexpected solutions. The joy of the book lies in seeing what problem will strike Watney next and how he will overcome it. How do you communicate using only a camera? How do you make water on a lifeless world? How do you grow potatoes in dead dirt? As Consumed by Ink’s review said, this stuff is mind-boggling in the best possible way, and makes for a fun story.

Critically, the explanation isn’t over-done. I never felt like I was being assaulted by long streams of show-off explanation. Having so much told by Watney helps, as what we see of his character is very likeable and this stops the explanations becoming dry.

A dead planet

I liked Watney because I got to spend so much time with him. But by the end of the book I realised that I still didn’t know much about him, and hadn’t had a strong impression of his feelings going through this terrifying ordeal.

That’s the weakness of this book – a lack of emotions. Watney is a survivor, which makes sense given his training. But he seldom springs to life in the reader’s mind. There’s no emotional journey here, just a physical one. We occasionally see glimpses of his isolation bothering Watney, but not in any depth. We know almost nothing of his life back home.

This approach adds to the abruptness of the ending, as picked up on by Twitterwoods. Because the story is entirely concerned with Watney’s physical survival, once we get to the point of escape or die there’s nowhere else to go. We aren’t faced with doubt about how he’ll cope with the terrible strain of this final section. We don’t get to feel the emotional impact on any of the characters. It just ends.

A different balance

Normally, that lack of emotion would be a problem, but not here. We spend so much time alone with Watney that we end up caring about him despite how little he reveals of himself. And the fascination of seeing how events play out makes for a compelling read.

The Martian is an unusual book. It strikes a perfect balance, focused enough on its details to maintain tension amidst a heap of technicalities, just getting away with the minimum of character depth.

There is an emotional engagement here for the reader, and it lies in the excitement and curiosity of Watney’s survival story. If you have any taste at all for hard science fiction, if you’re the sort of person who moans at the bad science in Star Trek, if you’re just looking for an unusual read, this one’s worth your time.

And what did I learn as a writer? That expanding on the right little details can be fascinating. Seriously, the minutiae of Watney’s story makes for a way more compelling experience than you’d expect. And I’ll never look at a potato the same way again.

Anybody else read this one yet? What did you think?


10 Responses to The Martian by Andy Weir

  1. You’re right, there isn’t much of an emotional journey in this book, but I think we’re so wrapped up in his physical survival that it doesn’t seem to matter. For this book, it works! Great review!

  2. “…if you’re the sort of person who moans at the bad science in Star Trek…”
    ‘Do people really do that?!?’ he said, powering up his phaser. 🙂

  3. Of course if you think about the kind of personality traits a person would need to be part of a mission to Mars then ‘being in touch with your emotions’ is probably not high on the list. I’m assuming this was part of the research Andy Weir did?

    That said I am pointing Rob in the direction of this book – sounds like it will be right up his alley!

    • You’re right, I’m sure that emotional resilience is part of what makes a good astronaut. But then there’s a difference between what’s realistic and what makes an enthralling story, and not addressing the issue felt a little too far towards resilience for me.

      And yes, I suspect Rob might like this one – Nathan got through it in a day after I suggested it.

  4. Hi Andrew,

    I came across a number of year-old reviews of The Martian (I plan to see it this weekend!) and I thought it was an interesting question that you posed in one of your responses: “On which point, has anybody read any other space exploration/disaster stories where the protagonist wasn’t a white bloke? I’d be interested to know what’s out there, and how much difference it makes to those stories.”

    I published my first novel, Return To Earth, in February and my lead character/hero is a black female. RTE is a post-apocalyptic story set in 2053 about a rogue planet hitting Earth. There are survivors on the moon who find out they can live on Europa, but they’ll have to return to Earth for fuel, supplies, etc. As you can probably guess, things are not good on Earth and they encounter all types of problems, some of which include wild animals and a number of barbaric survivors. You can read more about it on Amazon’s “look inside” feature).

    Anyway, I’m a black male and my main goal for making my hero a black female was so my daughters could see this type of strong lead character in a sci-fi disaster-type story. All in all though, her womaness was more of a defining characteristic than her actual race, but the element of inclusion goes a long way.

    If the story sounds interesting, I hope you check it out. In fact, if you are interested in reading it, I can send you a free download link or code. Just let me know.

    Cheers,
    Dennis

    • First up, congratulations on publishing your first novel Dennis! I hope it’s doing well. And thanks for the offer of a free copy. I won’t take you up on it right now, as I already have a backlog of books to read on my Kindle and on my shelves, but I’ve added it to my to-read list, with the aim of coming back to it when I have more time.

      I really like that you made the choice to have a black female protagonist for your daughters. I think that’s a fantastic example to set both as a parent and an author. From my perspective, it’s great to have the opportunity to read a wider range of protagonists, not just a bunch of people whose skin colour and gender supposedly makes them more like me. I look forward to reading Return To Earth when I’ve got a bit more time.

      Andrew

    • Also, having just checked out your website, I have to say that’s quite a bio! Your diversity of roles and studies during your army days is really impressive.

      • Avatar Dennis Calloway
        Dennis Calloway says:

        Hi Andrew…sorry for the delayed response, but looks like you’ve been quite busy! Thanks for the feedback and whenever you’re ready for a copy, just let me know.

        Cheers,
        Dennis