Mars has long held a fascination for humans and authors have used this fascination with great effect. From H. G. Wells‘ Martian invaders in The War of the Worlds to Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Barsoom to the myriad of modern books and films where Mars either place a central or peripheral role. Now Andy Weir has given us Mars as a science thriller in The Martian (2011).
I say science thriller because although there are elements of science fiction surrounding the story, in actuality the world Andy Weir portrays is only slightly more advanced than our world today. The science for the most part is solid, there is little to no handwavium going on and if you think about it science is very nearly one of the characters. There can be no question that this book is a thriller.
Mark Watney is part of the Ares 3 mission to Mars. Humanity’s third manned mission to the red planet. The routine mission is meant to last thirty Martian days (24 h 37 m 22s each), but the unthinkable happens and routine is replaced by extraordinary. Due to catastrophic conditions on Mars the mission must be aborted after only six Martian days. The harsh conditions lead to a terrible accident and Mark is left for dead on the surface of Mars. Only Mark isn’t dead. Mark must now use his skills and wits to stay alive, stay sane, and somehow get off Mars.
Through Mark’s log he relates his thoughts, his successes and his failures in his endeavours to achieve the goals of staying alive and returning home. I’m being purposefully vague about the plot as The Martian is not a book that would react well to spoilers.
The Martian was originally written as a serial on the internet with one chapter being released at a time. The author, Andy Weir, then took comments and feedback on the chapters and adapted that into his writing. While this process may not work for every writer it certainly worked for Andy Weir.
The beginning of the book is rather accountant-y with lots of references to calculations and planning and needs for survival. While this is cognizant to the story, it doesn’t make for the most interesting reading material for many people. As a science nerd myself, though, I can fully appreciate the technical aspects of this book, and for me they are of great interest. However the technical portions are not overly technical so most readers will either be able to understand or even skip them and still not have it detract from the overall story.
But something happens along the way, Weir found his stride and Mark Watney became more likeable and interesting and at times downright funny. It’s this affable humour that really brings Mark Watney alive, and consequently Mars and the entire story.
While reading the book I noticed that the pace was rather slow at first. Everything revolved around Watney and the only way we had to relate to him was through his log entries. The first rule of writing is show, don’t tell. The first couple of chapters are rather tell oriented, but here again Weir got over that and started showing us Watney and his fight with Mars.
The pace and interest of the book picked up considerably, though, once the focus shifted away from only Mark Watney to other characters. This shift away from Watney allows the reader a break from the bleakness of Watney’s most probable future. This is important as otherwise the outcome for Watney is a foregone conclusion and you might as well stop reading.
While The Martian could have been a grim tale of what can happen during humanity’s expansion into space, Andy Weir manages to avoid this with a certain amount of skill. Mark Watney is basically a happy person and Weir keeps him that way throughout the story. While I understand some people might say it would be more realistic to have Watney become sullen, angry, and depressive, I think Weir rationalises Watney’s behaviour well enough that having Watney become depressed or despondent would have been out of his character and not in keeping with the story.
I only have one tiny complaint about The Martian, and that is the almost too perfect juxtaposing skills Watney has in order live and survive on Mars. If Watney hadn’t been so supremely gifted with these abilities he would not have lived I’m sure. But you know what, it’s a good story and a writer has to do whatever it takes to give you a good story.
The Martian is a book that may not stand the test of time as we edge closer and closer to the future it portrays, but right now it is an exciting and eventually engaging story of one man’s struggle for survival against overwhelming challenges.