NASA Astronaut Mark Watney was only supposed to be on Mars for 31 days. When a Dust storm almost kills him, the rest of the crew leaves – under the impression that their colleague is actually dead. In his logs, Watney keeps track of his days (or “sols” – Mars days) on the Red planet, and his efforts to survive on the supplies and equipment left behind with him. Every so often Mars tries to kill him, but Watney is resourceful and keeps his spirits up with humour.
It’s been a while since I last read a book I could barely put down. The Martian was a delight to read. Sure, it’s a book about survival, but more importantly it is a book about a snarky man making jokes in the face of hardship. And boy does Watney face a lot of them.
This book does feature a lot of math, which is super not my thing. I quickly decided to just let the numbers pass me by and focus on the story. This was not a problem and didn’t impact my enjoyment of the book.
A friend pointed out that she doesn’t like how unemotional all the characters in the Martian are, and to an extent she is correct in that. Everyone is, like, super professional about what’s going on. We never get a nice window into the characters’ psyches. However, it didn’t really bother me while reading. The pacing is nice, and the gravity of the situation is clear to the reader, and I found that I didn’t need to see the emotional journey of the characters in order to have one of my own. And boy did I have an emotional journey. The stakes are very clear in the Martian. A cold lonely death. On MARS.
I found Watney’s situation weirdly relatable. Like, there is no way I would ever end up in a situation like this, and yet I constantly felt like this could totally happen to me and can you imagine how that would feel. Perhaps that is because I enjoy playing video games, and this book has a setup that feels very game-y. For Watney, Mars is the ultimate escape room.
Overall this book is a nice quick read for anyone who enjoys their drama with a healthy dose of humour and sass.
I would argue that The Martian is a bit of a unique reading experience, in that it actively invites the reader to puzzle along with the stranded Watney and his crazy science experiments – on the level of actual chemistry and physics.
Now, I realise that a good part of the puzzeling is probably wrong. I’m not a chemist myself, but one of my friends who is has implied as much. Weir touches on international space law (on which I wrote my thesis) once in the book, and missed the mark by a wide margin there. So I’m not sure whether we can trust him on getting his science straight.
But really – it doesn’t matter much. By writing about these chemistry puzzles, Weir makes you think about the kinds of issues that the people who work on space exploration actually deal with, and gives you a new perspective on (especially near future) sci-fi.
What is more, the book is a true page turner. That word gets thrown around a lot, but in the case of The Martian, I think it really is an apt description. The tension is constant, the troubles keep building, but – crucially – Watney keeps making progress. True, every step he takes he stumbles over a new problem – but then he tackles that head-on too. The book is constantly both satisfying and exciting. The pacing is excellent. Watney is optimistic and sassy, and Weir gives him a great sense of humor. Perhaps that is what sets the book apart most from what you’d expect – most sci-fi writers would focus on the existential dread of Watney’s situation, but Weir wrote a book that is just good fun.
The flipside is, however, that the book does not have particularly interesting character development – or even a particularly interesting overarching plot. Watney, being stuck alone on a planet (that’s the whole premise!), doesn’t have a chance to develop any interpersonal relations much, and the ‘antagonist’, for lack of a better word, is the uncaring environment. It didn’t matter to me, because the other aspects of the book easily make up for the lack of emotional content – but it is something to keep in mind if you like character driven fiction.
Overall, a light read, fast paced, humourous, but still very much hard sci fi. A definite recommendation, though perhaps less well suited for people who to take a deep dive in the character of a book’s protagonist.