A review before the movie comes out! Andy Weir’s The Martian.

In a lot of sci-fi and/or action movies, there’s usually a ‘techie’ character. You know the type: they’re nerdy, they do sciencey things to advance the plot, and their dialogue is evenly split between technobabble and pop culture references.

The Martian is a book that centers on the techie.

It’s just that the technobabble in The Martian is actual science.

Andy Weir is pretty much the textbook example of a self-publishing success story. When his manuscript was rejected by the big publishers, he serialized it online, and slapped it up on Amazon for the Kindle- at which point the book just rocketed up as a bestseller, leading to print publication and a movie deal. Dude’s living the dream. Thing is, The Martian is an anomaly amongst self published books because it’s, well, good.

If you haven’t seen the movie trailer for the upcoming movie adaptation of The Martian, the plot of the novel is pretty simple. Mark Watney, an astronaut on a Mars mission, gets stranded and presumed dead on Mars. Oh, and the communication system with Earth is down too. And so, Mark has to find a way to jury-rig equipment and provisions originally meant for 30 days to last him the years it’ll take for a rescue mission to arrive.

If a rescue mission arrives.

The book follows a sort of formula, paraphrased as follows.:

Log Entry 1.

I’m fucked.

I have X amount of RESOURCE.

Over a TIME PERIOD, I need X + Y amount of RESOURCE, or I will die.

But, I can use SCIENCE to make > Y amount of RESOURCE. Yay!

Log Entry 2.

Oh shit! I fucked up, and now SOME IMPORTANT THING is broken! I’m going to die!

Wait, no- I can use ENGINEERING (and duct tape) to fix it!

Repeat for a few hundred pages, sprinkling in some chapters checking in on Earth to taste. Of course, the improvisation and the resource-managing are the whole point. This is Hard Science Fiction, emphasis on the “Science.” Everything’s been meticulously researched by Weir, so Mark is dealing with things like water condensation instead of alien invasions. If that kind of nitty-gritty detail appeals to you, then The Martian is right up your alley. The book moves along at a rather quick clip; I was able to read most of it during a plane trip I took just a few days ago.

While enjoyable, The Martian isn’t a perfect novel. There are some minor things that I would’ve liked to see developed more, like a romance between some of the side characters, and CNN creating a nightly half-hour show to track Mark’s progress from afar. There’s lots of potential in stories like that, but again, that’s not what Weir wants to focus on. Furthermore, towards the end, there’s some shift in point of view that comes off as a little jarring; where most of the Mars action is written as first person log entries, there are a few segments that abruptly switch to third person. I understand why Weir switches the perspective (to show things going wrong, natch), but I think they could’ve been cut easily enough for the sake of narrative coherency.

Oh, and there’s one last little niggling detail about The Martian that really sums up the book. See, one of the (justifiably many, given the situation) things Mark complains about is how he’s left to rummage through his crewmates’ digital entertainment files in search of stuff to keep himself occupied. Which leads to Mark listening to a lot of disco and watching a lot of bad TV once he finds out that the mission commander is oddly obsessed with the 1970’s. However, at no point during the book do we ever learn what Mark himself brought with him on a multi-year interplanetary voyage to kee p himself occupied. It’s a small, but exceedingly glaring oversight- the sort of thing that shows that Weir’s done his homework on the science, but maybe not quite as much on the fiction.

Despite my little nitpicks, I still enjoyed The Martian, and I’ll recommend it to folks who are looking for a bit of light-but-not-stupid reading. It’s a beach book for nerds!

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