Because of the kind of nerd that I am, most science fiction that I end up reading can usually be lumped together into a sort of “science-fantasy” genre, as opposed to “hard sci-fi”. The distinction is in how close to realistic do the stories try to be. It’s the classic “Star Wars” vs. “Star Trek”. They’re both set in space ships, in space, and have laser guns- but one tries a lot more to be “realistic” than the other. Apples and oranges. Casino Red and Las Vegas.
In theory, a lot of Star Trek’s fictional technology, such as Warp Drives and Transporters, are based on real scientific principles that have been extrapolated into fantastical technology. Star Wars, meanwhile, has glowing purple laser swords, magic wizards, and moon-sized space ships- because why not? It’s cool. Some stories try to get even more realistic than Star Trek, like Issac Asimov’s stuff or “The Expanse”, where everything is written as close to the real technology as possible.
Andy Weir’s “The Martian” definitely falls closer to “The Expanse” in terms of realism than “Star Wars”. And you know what? It’s awesome.
The story follows the struggle of Mark Watney after a series of unfortunate events leaves him stranded on Mars.
At some point in the near future, NASA has begun sending a series of manned missions to Mars, where astronauts spend about a month on the red planet doing soil samples and whatnot before going home. This is called the “Ares” program. Mark Watney is a mechanical engineer and a botanist, and the lowest ranking officer on the Ares 3 mission.
After an unexpected storm hits the Hab (the Mars base) with 175 mph winds, NASA orders the mission to be aborted. The crew struggle towards the MAV, which will launch them into orbit to be picked up by their larger ship, the Hermes. However, during the evacuation, the antenna system is torn off by the wind- and slams into Watney. After being struck by this massive piece of machinery, and with bio-signs low, the crew assumes him to be dead and take off.
But surprise! He wasn’t dead – just unconscious with damaged equipment. Now isolated on Mars, with no way to communicate with Earth, and only enough food to last the length of the mission, Mark Watney has to use his (miraculously applicable) set of skills to figure out how to survive one of the most inhospitable environments known to man. And, somehow, get back home.
Prose and Pros
Before I even began reading “The Martian”, I had heard it was good. I did not, however, realize just how friggin good it is (I haven’t even seen the movie, although I plan to now). The premise itself is a perfect starting point for a tense plot—man versus nature. Mars is also a great setting for such a story. Getting lost in the Sahara Desert isn’t nearly so bad, so long as you can get to the nearest telephone. Or waterhole.
Mars, on the other hand, is a whole different ball game. It takes months to get to even by the fastest means of technology we have. Communication has a twelve-minute delay. The soil is dry and dead, with the only source of water being found at the poles. On the other hand, it’s survivable (otherwise, the story would just be Mark Watney runs out of air and dies- the end. And that would be very anticlimactic, now wouldn’t it?). A lot of the ideas, technology, and solutions are real solutions proposed by real scientists working on how to make it possible to land people on Mars. The kind of stuff SpaceX is working on.
Contrast this with a far harsher environment like, say, Venus, and Mark Watney, no matter how brilliant, would never stand a chance. If you don’t know, Venus gets to surface temperatures hotter than 450 degrees Celsius, its surface pressure is 95 times that of Earth’s, and it rains acid. While that would be an exciting story, it would require a lot more suspension of disbelief to make it work. The only other environment that would be as difficult as mars for this kind of story would be the Mariana Trench, and… hm… someone should write that…
Anyway, the story is told through a series of audio transcripts from Mark Watney. It’s sort of like a diary and a sci-fi version of the format used in classic stories like “Dracula” or “Frankenstein”, which are told from diary extracts and journal entries.
The main difference is that “The Martian” wasn’t written in 18th century prose and actually allows some personality to bleed through. A lot of personality, and thank goodness for that, because Mark Watney is written to be funny. His constant positive attitude and determination to survive are immensely endearing and save the story from becoming a plodding, miserable mess that makes me want to kill myself.
Not that the story shies away from just how terrible the situation is for him. Andy Weir managed to balance the tone just right so that the situation has to be taken seriously without making it a misery fest. Some stories really like to just through one terrible thing happening after another without any levity in between, and they make me want to gauge my eyeballs out.
In short, “The Martian” does not make me want to gouge my eyeballs out!
…yeah, put THAT on the cover.
Honestly, I don’t have much else to say about it. I don’t want to get into any spoilers, and the only major thing I’ve spoiled is that Mark Watney lives in the end. (Shocker, I know). The enjoyment is found in seeing HOW he survives, and since that’s the entire story, there’s not much else to really talk about.
Normally, I would deviate here to talk about the story’s themes and core message, but the Martian doesn’t really have any. “Never give up”, maybe? They’re a bit, literally on the last page, where Mark comments on how many millions of people had to come together in order to save him, and how humanity is more good than bad- which is a message I can get behind.
In an age where nihilism, depression, and morally gray heroes are trendy, it’s a breath of fresh air to read a… well, wholesome story like “The Martian”. Despite waging a desperate battle against the odds, Mark Watney meets every challenge with a joke and a smile. There’s no intrigue or backstabbing here- the closest this story comes to that is when China gets involved, and China wants is some good PR and a Chinese Astronaut on the next Mars mission.
As for the science, it’s really damn accurate. I’m a second year student getting a degree in Mechatronics, which I know is a far cry from rocket science, but from what I do know and what I know from just my general interest in science, I know that a lot of the science works.
Best of all, Andy Weir manages to walk the tightrope of explaining things just enough so that the story makes sense while also successfully dumbing things down enough to be easily read by laymen (of which I suppose I myself probably count). This is a really hard line for authors, especially sci-fi authors, to walk, and I think Andy Weir nails it.
I read a lot. It’s one of my favorite pastimes. I consume books at a ridiculous pace. That said, “The Martian” is easily one of the best books I have read in a long time. My forte is usually fantasy, but not always. I should probably get a Kindle subscription. Hm.
The point is, I don’t say that a book is good lightly. I’ve read plenty of garbage, and I have no qualms saying it loud and clear. I do try to be fair and say that others could enjoy something, even if I didn’t. There’s a difference between something that just wasn’t my cup of tea (“Fahrenheit 451”) and something just being bad (“Exiles at the Well of Souls”).
“The Martian” is a rare instance where I have nothing bad to say about it. It’s that good. There’s not a single line I think should have been cut, with no loose ends that never got resolved. It’s streamlined to perfection, well-paced, and is a phenomenal work of fiction. Usually, I nitpick the crap out of the books I read, and The Martian has beaten every metric I usually go by.
The prose is immensely readable, the characters are fleshed out, and the science is good enough that it would take a real rocket science going through with a fine-tooth comb to point out anything to fix. And for all I know, Andy Weird DID ask real rocket scientists to proofread. The plot makes sense, and it all ends in a climactic “do or die” finale. It doesn’t overstay its welcome and wraps up in one of the most optimistic messages I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a long time.
So congrats, Andy Weir! “The Martian” gets an immensely rare 10/10 from me! A random nobody on the internet! Wear it with pride.