The Martian by Andy Weir, is a science-heavy story of survival that is, in my opinion, largely carried by the humor and personality of its main character, Mark Watney. The book started out strong, presenting science and life on Mars in an easily understood and entertaining way, but around halfway, the book took a bit of a dive for me. The sometimes lengthy descriptions of procedures and the science involved in them began weighing the story down, but the most damaging factor for me became the constant catastrophe. Add in some really strange point of view shifts and a few inconsistencies, and you’ve got a book that I would feel comfortable recommending, but I don’t think it is the amazing piece of literature everyone makes it out to be.
- Mark Watney. His character is written in an incredibly entertaining and intelligent manner. His humor and approach to his situation were both fun and refreshing to read. I feel like Watney is the structural pillar that props up the rest of the book. Without him, this would be little more than a boring “How to Survive on Mars” manual.
- Weir does a wonderful job of concisely explaining the science of his book. Most of the time his explanations feel appropriate and add to the story. This reminded me, in a diametric manner, of Jurassic Park. Where Crichton was happy to give his readers whole pages of DNA coding, Weir gives the reader a short, simple line of hexadecimal code. This type of inclusion can do a great deal to enhance realism, but when used too heavily it just seems arrogant and annoying. Weir’s use of it falls under the former most of the time. We’ll be revisiting this point in “The Bad.”
- There are points in the book where the science and explanation become far too much and a much simpler summary would have been fine. At one point Watney explains his entire procedure for deflating a customized pop tent, where a simple “I figured out how to deflate the pop tent; it was tricky, but I figured it out.” would have been far more effective writing. Knowing his entire procedure for deflating the tent does nothing for the story other than demonstrate that Weir did lots of research. Sometimes the reader doesn’t need to know how every little thing works, just that it does.
- Catastrophe for the sake of catastrophe. To quote one of the book’s characters, “Space is dangerous.” And I can appreciate and agree with this statement. But the reality of a situation doesn’t always make the best fiction. When nearly every action your character takes ends in or is motivated by some catastrophic event, the story becomes formulaic. Sometimes it’s better to bend the rules to keep your story interesting.
- Weir makes some really odd writing choices throughout the book. For the majority of the book, the reader follows either the JPL teams on Earth that are trying to save Watney, or they are reading the log entries Watney writes. Three times throughout the book, Weir completely abandons these established styles and switches to different points of view that involve omnipotent narrators. Each one of these switches was jarring and felt completely unnecessary to me.
- Inconsistencies. I’m talking about potentially small things that won’t bother most readers, but I work in video game QA. Details are my life, and there are several times throughout the book that previously established details are flubbed, and that shatters the bejeezus out of my immersion, especially when the story is so heavily science based. For example, Watney performs an extended EVA and makes a joke about navigating by landmarks, specifically that you can’t navigate by them when there are none to navigate by. Later in the story, Watney references this EVA and says that he had landmarks to navigate by. Not even worthy of a footnote to some people, but mistakes like that might as well be written in flashing neon to me.
- The ending felt bad to me for two reasons:
- Throughout the whole book, Weir shows you how the entire population of the planet Earth pulls together to save a single man, and he does a good job of it. Then at the end of the book, he goes off on a tangent where he talks about an innate desire for humans to help each other. It felt cheap, unnecessary, and clashed with the tone of the rest of the book.
- It felt like a missed opportunity. The book had a very playful air about it, and ends very abruptly. I can’t go into detail without revealing spoilers, but I feel like the book should have ended on a potato joke.
The Ares 3 mission had barely begun when a vicious dust storm forced all the astronauts involved to evacuate. The only problem is that due to an unfortunate turn of events, Mark Watney got left behind. Now Mark is stuck on Mars with no way to communicate to anyone that he’s still alive. He has plenty of food, water, and air for the time being, but this mission was supposed to last thirty days, and Mars isn’t exactly hospitable to human life.