The Martian

Life On Mars? (The Martian)

The Martian (Andy Weir, 2011) is a ‘hard’ science fiction novel about a stranded astronaut on Mars, and the extreme measures he takes in order to survive.

It opens with our hero Mark Watney being impaled by a stray antenna during a mission-ending sandstorm, and being left for dead on the barren, lifeless surface of Mars as his crew-mates leave the planet on the only Mars Ascent Vehicle. Unfortunately for everyone–especially our titular Martian–Watney isn’t dead, and manages to survive with very little overall injury. The communications array of the Mars habitat–or Hab–has been irrevocably destroyed, leaving Mark without any means to communicate to his former crew or the Earth. Now Mark has to learn how to survive on a dead planet for a much longer time than originally planned and find a way to re-establish contact with NASA.

These would be an impossible tasks, were it not for the fact that Mark has two skills (and impenetrable plot armour) on his side: He is a mechanical engineer and a botanist. Some might think that’s a weird combination, and they’d be right. But as far as survivability goes, they’re a killer combo when fighting against the constant dangers of mechanical failures and starvation. Mark still has the majority of supplies that the crew brought with them before aborting the mission, including Earth soil and some potatoes. Oh, and a bunch of awesome space food. But the potatoes are where it’s at, trust me.

The majority of the novel is told in the form of snippets of Mark’s log, each dated with a Sol, or Martian day. Given that he spends… a while… in a base that was only meant to be used for a month, he encounters plenty of problems that require his particular set of expertise. Prepare yourself for many, many pages of techno-babble and incredible solutions for every, ever-present life-threatening problem. I guess it would be a short book if Mark died at the first sign of trouble. A really short book. It’s highly possible that most of the words in this novel make sense, but being more of a software nerd, the majority of the references and mechanics fly totally over my head. This is hardly an excuse, as Weir is a computer scientist himself, but he’s also quite the space enthusiast. If you’re also a wannabe astronaut, you might find yourself squealing with delight at the technical descriptions of all the neat stuff an astronaut would take–we haven’t quite got an interplanetary base there in real life yet–with them to Mars.

Despite being the only living creature on the planet, Watney is very fond of cracking jokes and has an irrepressibly cheery personality that will drive you completely insane. But maybe that boundless optimism is the only thing keeping him alive. The novel skirts around the psychological problems of being utterly isolated for a long period of time from any other living creature, instead having Mark primarily survive on English literature and 70’s television. If Mark is having a nervous breakdown, he doesn’t write about it in his log, preferring to crack jokes about Aquaman or hazarding guesses at the villain of the current Agatha Christie novel he’s reading. Anyway, on to the slightly spoilery stuff.

So what’s Earth doing while Mark’s watching Three’s Company reruns? Well, for a start, they’re organising his memorial service, because they think he’s dead. But when a particularly observant satellite operator spots inconsistencies between the mission logs and the images being pulled down from Mars, NASA starts to consider the possibility that Watney survived. Oh oh!

I haven’t talked about any of the other characters yet, and that’s because they’re boring. Well, not really, but Mark’s logs take up the majority of the book so no one else has time to actually develop. When we’re not reading Mark’s logs, we’re reading typical dialogue-and-prose format stuff, which doesn’t seem to be Weir’s speciality. The prose isn’t bad, but the logs have a more natural feel to them. Most dialogues in the novel are ‘X said, Y said’ and that’s it. Maybe some gritted teeth and slamming fists here and there, but otherwise it’s just a bunch of people standing around throwing words at each other.

As you might expect, the log format doesn’t suit immediate suspense very well: If you’re reading a log, Mark must still be alive at that point. To counteract this, Weir occasionally intersperses some prose with the logs. But this breaks the immersion, because he only does it when something bad is about to happen. Like, why would the reader suddenly begin to follow the journey of a piece of Hab material all the way from creation to its installation in the Hab? Makes no sense, but it does make your stomach drop a bit when you realise something’s up.

Whoops, I was meant to be complaining about the other characters! The problem is, I can only remember the names of a handful of them: Venkat Kapoor, Guy In Charge Of Stuff at NASA; Mindy Something, Shy NASA Satellite Person; Teddy Something, Difficult But Not Actually Bad NASA Person; and… I want to say ‘Alice’? No, turns out it was Annie Something, the Sweary NASA Media Person Who Can’t Believe She Works With Nerds (???). I’m not joking, she’s honestly surprised when the NASA nerds hold a secret meeting and call it ‘Project Elrond’. Everyone spends a lot of time arguing for no reason, but they’re essentially good people, if extremely one-dimensional.

Then there’s the other crew that have already left Mars, including classic German stereotype Vogel who speaks perfect English except when he says ‘yes’. I’ve never, ever met someone in real life who speaks English with exceptions for certain words like that. Except English people. But anyway, this is a common trope, ja? I’m not mortally offended, I was just surprised to still see it being used. Or maybe I just don’t know enough characters in real life.

Venkat and the scientists at NASA have zero development. Mindy has some fake development where she goes from being shy to being mean due to stress and having a rubbish job. The crew likewise has no development, except for the absolutely superfluous romance that will definitely be played up in the film version. Now I think about it, even Mark starts off ridiculously cheerful and obnoxious and stays cheerful and obnoxious for over a year. He’s not even really that distraught on the day he’s stranded! He’s almost fully recovered by the next morning. Maybe the force of character development gets weaker the further you are from Earth?

The Martian is a short read which you’ll be able to finish in a couple of evenings. This is to the novel’s credit, because the reader can only take so much ‘then I fixed the gigawatt generator with the hammerspace nozzle’ before they get bored. And the Earth bits are mercifully short, but do have their moving moments. The majority of the scenes with the crew could have been cut and no one would have noticed.

Actually, I would have given more time to the crew than the NASA people. We know the NASA people are going to be doing everything they can to save Mark and spend as much money as possible while doing it. Weir actively avoids an amazing opportunity for character development by having NASA not tell the crew about Watney’s survival until it’s already confirmed they can contact him and form a plan to extract him. Imagine all the angst that could have been had! But no, NASA are too sensible to have their astronauts in super mopey moods on long journeys.

Even though I thought the characters were boring, the writing is fun and all the technical stuff–while occasionally impenetrable to me–is fascinating to read. You’ll start to think you’re reading applied science rather than a largely theoretical and occasionally utterly fictional substitute (I guess? I know so little about science, it’s embarrassing).

If you’re into space exploration, Castaway-style stories, or occasional jokes about 70’s pop culture, The Martian is for you. Heck, it’s such a short, down-to-Earth (haha) read I’d say it’s worth a go even for readers unfamiliar with science fiction. Just don’t use it as a how-to guide if you get stuck on Mars, okay?

— Matthew

Liked the post? Why not share it?
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrShare on StumbleUponShare on RedditEmail this to someoneBuffer this page