Book Review: The Martian (2011)
by Alan F. Zundel
“The Martian: A Novel” is a top-notch piece of popular fiction, much like the movie is a top-notch piece of popular entertainment. If you liked the movie you’ll like the book, and vice versa. Unsurprisingly, they have a lot in common.
When I say “popular fiction” I’m not being condescending. I’m just making it clear that this is not (and, I’m sure, doesn’t aspire to be) high-brow literature. There isn’t much evocative, creative use of the English language, metaphors or symbolism, or any of that kind of adornment.
What “The Martian” does have is clear, straightforward, tight writing, which sails you along through a compelling story. In other words, what 90% of the readers out there are looking for. Like the movie, it’s a crowd pleaser.
And while it doesn’t have the presence of Matt Damon in the title role, it does provide that character with a delightful narrative voice. Stranded astronaut Mark Watney is funny, smart, and congenial company for the reader. (I can see why they cast Damon.) The other characters don’t come alive nearly as well, but fortunately the bulk of the story is told by Watney.
(Looking at the big grin of author and science nerd Andy Weir on the inside cover, I suspect that voice is actually Weir’s own.)
Watney was part of a mission to Mars that got caught up in a vicious Martian sandstorm. He was hit by a flying object and disappeared into the dust, his life support system signaling that he had died. The other astronauts tried to find the body, but had to give up and take off before their Mars Ascent Vehicle blew over and they all were stranded.
Watney, however, is alive. The story starts with his entry into a log:
“I’m pretty much fucked. That’s my considered opinion. Fucked.”
But he pulls himself together and sets about the seeming hopeless task of surviving until he can be rescued, entering his thoughts and activities into the log that composes most of the book. The mother ship is already on its way back to Earth and the next mission to Mars is not scheduled for several more years, so he has his work cut out for him.
The story shifts from his log from time to time to narrate what is happening at NASA on Earth, with the rest of his crewmates in their spaceship, and on Mars around him. This stuff moves the story along and is written well enough to be easy reading, but it is the voice of Watney that keeps things entertaining.
“Sirius 1 is complete! More accurately, Sirius 1 was aborted after one hour. I guess you could call it a ‘failure,’ but I prefer the term ‘learning experience.’”
“Oh God, I’m sore. But it’s the only way I could think of to get the lander safely onto the roof. I built a ramp out of rocks and sand. Just like the ancient Egyptians did.”
“Now that NASA can talk to me, they won’t shut the hell up.”
“In retrospect, using my fingers to spread the resin wasn’t the best plan. Fortunately, my left hand was still free. After some grunting and a lot of profanities, I was able to reach the toolbox. Once I got a screwdriver, I chiseled myself free (feeling really stupid the whole time).”
In between these complaints and confessions, Watney explains exactly what he does to keep himself alive and to fix the myriad problems he encounters. Some of the science was over my head, but Weir does a laudable job making it comprehensible to the lay person. It all sounds plausible and realistic, which gives the book the added appeal of making the reader feel like s/he learned something.
Apart from any educational value, “The Martian” is just a fun read, the way I remember pulp novels like “A Princess of Mars” being fun to read when I was a teenager. Weir uses their same technique of putting cliff-hangers at the end of chapters to keep your interest, but his story is closer to reality so I can still feel like a grown-up while having fun.
I’ve taken to thinking of the systems in my house—plumbing, electricity, heat—as life support systems, and the inevitable repairs as my challenge as an intrepid astronaut on this strange planet. Still boring and annoying to take care of, sure.
But now also (*ahem*) heroic.