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?
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?