Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir
After 8 long years I can finally read for pleasure again.
Okay, so that's an overstatement. I have had some time for pleasure reading through high school and college, just not very much. I was particularly busy during the last year or two, with, you know, a thesis and graduating and all that jazz. It took me a few weeks after graduating and starting my new job to stop and realize something serious was missing from my life. What was it? Oh, yeah. Books.
Picking somewhere to start was easier said than done. I have an Amazon wish list with about 70 titles, some of which that have been sitting there for upwards of four years. Still, half of that was non-fiction (I specifically needed something fictive) or titles I was eh about. So I bit the bullet on a title I remember reading about on a blog I follow: The Martian: A Novel by Andy Weir.
Mark Watney is an astronaut on a 6-person NASA mission to Mars. We quickly learn that while the team was on Mars, an unexpected and violent dust storm forces them to evacuate the planet. During the emergency escape the team loses track of Mark, who, unbeknownst to his crew, was safely knocked unconscious, but safe. They regretfully leave without him, as otherwise they would be stranded with him.
Mark inevitably wakes up and realizes that (1) his crew took the only vehicle capable of leaving Mars, (2) he's stranded on Mars with only a shelter designed to support life for a month, and (3) that he has no method for communication with either his crew or Earth, who all believe he's dead.
The Martian in the simplest terms is a survival story of the man vs. nature variety, with the twist being that the laws of nature are that of the physics and properties of Mars. Mark is an endearing and likable character—he's funny, resilient, and clever, contriving solutions to the stickiest of situations. Speaking of which, I must applaud Weir's imagination that devised both his challenging predicaments and his cunning fixes. The excruciatingly detailed scientific analysis included in Watney's journal logs are on one hand impressive and the other accessible. Watney is the kind of guy that cuts through the bullshit (i.e., scientific jargon) and tells you like it is.
That said, the scientific breakdown of Watney's scheming takes up most of the novel. The structure and pace of the story remains consistent throughout: there's a plot twist where Watney is challenged, he devises a way to fix it, and he rattles off the science behind it. If you have an interest in space or physics, you'll love it. Survivalists and fans of the genre will likely love it too, if they don't mind learning a little bit about rocket science. It gets repetitive, but fortunately the book ends just shy of when it would start to get annoying.
As I said, it's pretty much all about survival and science. If you're all about character development and relationships, this story isn't really about that. I wish Weir had explored more of Watney's psychology. He's either excited, bored, tired, or mildly lonely. You might think that someone who spends a year-and-a-half alone on a foreign, inhospitable planet would experience more psychological trauma. Or perhaps growth! Watney at the end is pretty much the same as Watney at the beginning.
Weir eventually weaves Houston and his crew into the narrative, and he attempts some unconventional play with structure. I found it distracting more than anything. In fact, I found myself skipping over sections to get back to the part of the narrative I cared about. Towards the end, he disrupts the first-person structure of Watney's logs and breaks into an omniscient narrator that reads like a documentarist. This happens more than once in short, but verbose sections that makes you think the story is taking a turn, but then he returns to the established structure. I found it unnatural and baiting—I mean, most of the story is told through Watney's logs, so the reveal of the story being told as a documentary would make a lot of sense.
What's my final conclusion? The Martian is fine. The pace, Watney's humor, and life-and-death circumstances kept me turning the pages. It made for a great book to get me reading again.