Science fiction can generally be broken down into two types: hard and soft. Hard scifi builds its world around facts and real science while soft scifi generally uses space or technology as its backdrop. I generally lean towards the latter (I don’t need to know how the Nostromo’s engines work to understand that it’s a spaceship that can fly through space); however, The Martian by Andy Weir has received tons of praise and is being made into a film by one of my favorite directors. I figured I had to check it out, even if it doesn’t fit my scifi norm.
It’s! … Alright.
Humanity’s third trip to Mars starts and ends in failure as a sudden storm hits, damaging equipment and threatening the safety of the crew. NASA calls the mission off, but not before Mark Watney is impaled by a piece of radio antenna and blown far away. His suit goes dark, and his fellow astronauts are forced to leave him behind, thinking him dead. It never occurs to them that he might still be alive. Now Mark has to survive, alone and with limited resources, on a barren planet until he can be rescued. It’ll take 400 days for a new ship to arrive, and he only has a 100 days worth of food.
That’s a problem.
The other problem is that The Martian’s biggest selling point is also its biggest weakness. This is a hard science fiction story, one where the real facts become just as important as Mark’s survival. The plot, in theory, is amazing: one man stranded over a 140 million miles away with no hope of rescue, but there’s little immediate agency to what actually goes on. Mark won’t starve to death for quite some time, turning all of his biggest problems into ones of logic and not story. Every math equation is present front and center, down to the angle of a solar cell or how much water is needed to make X-square yards of usable soil. I can see how people might find Mark building the first workable farm on Mars really cool (and I certainly appreciate the amount of research that went into it), but the practice is tedious. I don’t need the step-by-step instructions, just the general gist.
It doesn’t help that Mark’s entire story is told in an epistolary style, in this case, audio logs. He starts a journal, which makes sense given that he’s alone, but it also turns all of his biggest hurdles into a pseudo blog with more math than I rightfully want in any kind of story. I don’t ever get to see him struggle, only hear about it afterwards.
When something happens that simply cannot fit in with the audio-log format, The Martian breaks into third-person. It was downright jarring the first time, but by the second narrative flip, I realized it was a kind of poker tell, one that said, “Something really, really bad is going to happen to Mark and I can’t make it exciting unless I break style.” It’s a shame too, because it kills tension.
The epistolary novel is hard to execute, and as of now, I still think Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the only book that really does it right. The Martian makes a solid effort though, and I really do appreciate it having sound reasoning behind Mark’s journals. He’s alone and feels compelled to talk, and if someone were to find his body far in the future, they’d at least know that he survived and what he managed to accomplish.
It even makes sense that he’d be as specific and scientific as possible when talking about his farm, making modifications to his equipment, fixing things, and solving general problems that no one could have predicted. NASA will eventually send someone back to retrieve what he left behind, and that’s information they’d want.
And some of it all really is interesting. I won’t lie about that. However, I never found it tense. Even when something really bad happens, we only learn about it after the fact, after Mark has already solved most of the problem.
I was also disappointed by how little solitude affected Mark. I quite expected—and really wanted—him to pull a Castaway, to start losing his mind. People are social creatures, and Mark does not socialize much throughout this story. He keeps his cool from start to finish though, and the only times he talks to himself are through his audio logs. He doesn’t talk back either.
The Martian doesn’t exclusively focus on Mark Watney. Perhaps half the book takes place back on Earth, in a third-person format, as it follows a few NASA characters around. I enjoyed them more than I did Mark, and I found their problems more tense too. They had more character drama to them, and I found their need to balance good public relations with their actual work to be kind of fun, even if that sounds boring on paper.
As it turns out, it’s hard to hide information when everything you do is open to the public.
It’s the changes in characters that add actual tension to The Martian, especially by the end. Time is the one resource no one in the novel has, and as it ticks down, I really had no idea what kind of ending I might get. Even when I thought I predicted it, I wound up being very wrong. I like that though, and it certainly made what is a slow-moving journey worth the effort.
There’s a lot of negativity in this review, and I really wish that weren’t the case, because I certainly didn’t hate The Martian. It’s an interesting math problem, one that combines the contents of a text book with a story. Even when the science is drawn out and tedious, it’s still kind of interesting, and even when the characters are trying too hard to be funny, they’re still likeable. I don’t really know what else to say other than it mostly works.
It was also cool to read a science fiction book without aliens, lasers, evil robots, or the destruction of the planet looming ahead. I appreciate different, and this novel certainly is.
Flaws aside, I had fun. It’s worth checking out if you don’t mind some long-winded discussions on recycling water, how many calories the human body needs to survive, or using Mars’s moons as a compass.