If you’re of the geeky persuasion, then you’ve most likely already heard of The Martian by Andy Weir. With a major film adaptation on the brink of release, this sci-fi thriller has seen a great deal of hype over recent months. I set out to give it a read, and judge for myself just how well it stacked up against all that buzz.
The book opens with a nail-biting premise. Astronaut Mark Watney has been abandoned on Mars. His crew, believing him dead, have already evacuated and he has no way to communicate with either them or Earth. Left with nothing but supplies intended to last for a month, Mark must somehow achieve the impossible: survive, and find a way to return home.
It’s been some time since I struggled to put a book down as much as I did this one, and I don’t say that lightly. The Martian is a gripping read that maintains a fast pace and a strong sense of tension from the first page to the last. This is quite a feat considering the vast majority of the plot features only a single character stuck in a largely featureless desert, but somehow it works. A big part of this is of course down to Mark Watney himself, who was specifically chosen for the mission in part due to his ability to inject a bit of humour and positivity into the darkest of situations. This is a skill that Mark puts to great use during his time on the red planet, as he proves that there’s no challenge that can’t be overcome with a little geeky humour and a dash of problem-solving genius.
Given the size of the stakes, Weir is careful to avoid any cases of Deus Ex Machina and Mark is forced to deal with each new crisis through the clever application of his available resources. While this is undoubtedly one of The Martian’s fundamental strengths, the fact that Watney’s only supplies on that barren world are the things we’ve already sent up there with him means that the tools at his disposal do occasionally feel a little too well suited to the task at hand. Watney, as well, often comes across as a little too perfect for the job. It’s no surprise that he’s highly competent – astronauts are selected from the best and specialising in multiple disciplines was a prerequisite for this assignment – however the breadth and depth of Mark’s ability in areas well outside of his own specialist fields sometimes borders on the unbelievable. That’s not to say that all of Watney’s schemes go as planned; they certainly don’t. However, there were very few times that I really felt like he didn’t have an answer or encountered any serious struggle in his attempts to implement it. For the sake of tension, it would have been nice to occasionally see a little crack in his armour – just enough to keep us doubting.
Excessive genius aside, Watney’s wise-cracking disposition does make him instantly memorable. Unfortunately the same isn’t true for the rest of the cast, who all fall somewhat flat. Many of Weir’s other characters are largely indistinguishable from each other, and those who aren’t lean too heavily on one or two defining characteristics in the place of a genuine personality (the foul-mouthed PR executive, the pain-in-the-ass flight director who puts his crew first, and so on). While the cast members do a reasonable job of discussing science, their more human interactions often come across as clichéd, wooden, or simply unreflective of how people actually talk to each other in the real world. This is fairly easy to excuse given that Watney receives more page time than the rest of the characters combined, however it does seem like a missed opportunity to develop a genuinely engaging subplot and leaves the novel’s Earth-based chapters feeling a little dry.
From a technical standpoint on the other hand, The Martian feels incredibly well written – the technology feels eminently plausible and I could easily imagine a Mars mission taking place exactly as told (albeit hopefully without the associated disaster) not too far into the future. A big part of this is down to the massive amount of research that Weir has clearly put into the novel, covering not just how real space flights work but also how the proposed systems of the near future could make a Mars expedition a reality. However the science in this book isn’t just convincing, it’s also surprisingly accessible. Watney’s first-person journals (which make up most of the novel) break down both the nature of his predicament and his latest attempts to solve it in a manner that’s both entertaining and easily understandable, despite a hefty helping of technical jargon. I went into this book expecting it to be relatively hard going, and I’m pleased to say I was wrong.
For all its flaws, I found The Martian to be a thoroughly entertaining read and it’s certainly a book I’d recommend. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that does the science part of sci-fi as well as this one does, particularly while remaining so accessible. It might not be a strong character driven drama, but if you’re into realistic science fiction or simply enjoy a good thriller and have an interest in the practicalities behind space travel in the near future, then The Martian is most likely the book for you.