The Martian by Andy Weir is one of those rare cases of indie success that’s turned into mainstream success. Weir wrote the book for fans of his personal website, and thought his book would appeal mostly to hardcore science nerds. When a reader suggested he put it up as an ebook on Amazon, it climbed up into the top ranking and ended up landing its author a traditional publishing deal. The print deal led to a movie directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon which will be released in November 2015.
The Martian is actually pretty good. I’m usually a little leery of self-published, digital-only books, but this was good quality (though I did read the ebook a while after it was published in print). Not only is it well-edited, but the plot moves along quickly and all the elements cohere very well. The major strength of The Martian is in its science background. Weir said that many of his readers were professionals in scientific fields and helped him with fact-checking (although Weir’s no slouch himself – he began working for Livermore National Laboratory while in high school).
The Martian follows the struggles of the charming and somewhat immature Mark Watney who must survive in the inhospitable environment of Mars. On an excursion during a sandstorm, a piece of debris struck his equipment and made his suit unable to communicate with the spacecraft. His crew, believing him dead, left him alone on the planet with nothing but the pop-up tents and the Hab, which was meant to last for a journey of less than a month. It is fascinating to watch Mark as he hacks the little equipment left to him to survive until NASA can send another spacecraft to retrieve him.
In the meantime, we get to see how politics and science clash as NASA endeavors to save Mark. We get a window on the calculated protocol through which information is shared or withheld from different groups of people. For example, NASA waited until the point Mark’s body would probably be buried by sand to turn the cameras on the landing site.
Another interesting, but somewhat spoilerific point (spoilers in white text, highlight to view), is that Zhu Tao, the Chinese scientist who built the booster that was offered to the Americans in exchange for a Chinese astronaut on their next mission, doesn’t look too happy at the launch. He says, “I spent four years working on Taiyang Shen [the booster]… In the end, we built a beautiful probe… and now it’s setting in a warehouse… The state Council won’t fund another booster like that. It could have been a lasting legacy of scientific research. Now it’s a delivery run. We’ll get a Chinese astronaut on Mars, but what science will he bring back that some other astronaut couldn’t have? This operation is a net loss for mankind’s knowledge.”
Mark Watney indirectly responds to the question of whether saving him was worth the massive expenditure with, “The cost for my survival must have been hundreds of millions of dollars. All to save one dorky botanist. Why bother? Well, okay. I know the answer to that. Part of it might be what I represent: progress, science, and the interplanetary future we’ve dreamed of for centuries. But really, they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out.” Hm. I didn’t find that all that convincing. I doubt this would happen in real life, but it would be a real bummer of a story of Mark just died up there so for narrative’s sake it’s important, even if it’s a little illogical.
One of the issues that’s been pointed out frequently with this book is that the smaller characters at the NASA base on Earth tend to blend together. Particularly Tim, Jack, and Mitch (although Mitch plays a bigger part towards the end). They all have pretty generic white male names and white male personalities and and near-indinguishable. Teddy, I remembered he was in one of the higher positions because it’s kind of an old-fashioned name which helped me remember he’s the older one. Vankat Kapoor and Mindy Park’s names are easier to remember, plus the omniscient narrator follows each of them in a couple scenes so we get to know their innermost thoughts decently well. Venkat is in charge of orchestrating Mark Watney’s rescue mission, and Mindy Park watches the cameras for signs of what’s happening to Mark (and complains frequently about her mechanical engineering degree being under-utilized, since she’s effectively acting as paparazzo). I didn’t particularly like either of them, but I had a clear mental picture of each of them, so that wasn’t bad (oddly enough I imagined Mindy Park as Mindy Kaling because of the shared first name and that they each have kind of a self-deprecating sense of humor).
Mark himself is interesting in that he’s more like the main character of a comedy movie or comic strip than of a book. He’s funny, optimistic, and sarcastic about the hardships he faces. After years of reading I’ve gotten used to angsty, troubled main characters, so this was different. Different is good. Different is also weird. I kind of missed that vulnerability in a main character, but psychically it was nice because it didn’t bring me down like Alaric Darconville from or Doctor Griffin. It was a nice change, but for me it made it hard to connect.
I also didn’t find a lot of Mark’s jokes funny. Other readers (particularly those partial to punning and dirty jokes) will probably find this book hilarious, though there were a few more whimsical jokes to appeal to more subtle senses of humor, like this one: “The dirt is only viable soil because of the bacteria growing in it. If I get rid of all the oxygen, the bacteria will die. I don’t have 100 billion little space suits handy.” For the most part, though, the humor is sarcasm and jokes about anatomy.
In terms of sexism, it’s got it pretty much under control. There are a couple slips, like when a male scientist comes up to Venkat, explains a complicated idea for how to save Watney, and then a female scientist comes up and asks for a Diet Coke. Actually, now that I think about it, there aren’t any named female scientists at the NASA base except for Mindy, who’s just watching the cameras and deciphering Mark’s activities. On the Mars mission, there was Commander Lewis, who made the hard decision to give the command to leave, and there was Johanssen, the computer specialist. Mindy, Lewis, and Johanssen were all pretty believable characters, but Lewis wasn’t really given a lot of focus (although she might have a larger role in the movie, since it’s been announced that Jessica Chastain will be playing her), Mindy didn’t really do anything, and Johanssen is small and attractive and gets some attention which might make female readers a little uncomfortable (it’s not that bad, but fair warning).
So, that’s The Martian in a nutshell. If you’re into chemistry, biology, physics, you’ll love this one. The science is very thorough but the jokes make it not too dry of a read if you’re not a scientist. Weir isn’t an amazing prose stylist, but his writing is economical and punchy. It keeps the suspense taut most of the time, except for when it dips into complicated explanations (I’m pretty math-illiterate, so I skimmed some of those parts with numbers). Overall, The Martian is a fun, challenging-in-a-different-way-than-most-novels kind of read, and I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in Mars fiction.