The short: 4/5 ✦. A smart, funny, and fantastic survivalist novel that focuses on SPAAAACE and ~*~SCIENCE~*~ without losing either the layman or expert audience.
To illustrate my review, I shall be utilizing the tweets of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Although he reviewed the movie, not the book, the two are (surprisingly) similar, particularly in terms of theme and character, so his points happily still apply.
For anyone who’s even remotely a science geek, nothing’s more frustrating than reading (or watching) something that just plain ignores basic scientific facts. It’s one thing to tweak the rules (faster-than-light space travel, for example) and another to get them completely wrong (many of the complaints about the film Gravity).
The Martian, for the most part, doesn’t do this. As Tyson says, the novel gets hard science correct, and what is fictional is for the betterment of the story, rather than because Weir didn’t feel like doing the research. If what he says on interviews is true, he actually did a lot of researching to get his book to be as accurate as possible – barring the whole “Earth astronauts on Mars” thing. And to be fair, the only reason NASA hasn’t done that yet is because we still haven’t figured out a way to launch from Mars’s thin atmosphere; any current trip to the red planet will be decidedly one-way. The plot-reliant duststorm is also enhanced for story reasons, as real Martian storms aren’t nearly as bad as depicted. Nearly everything else is fairly rock solid (pun intended), based on the science we know now.
Mark Watney, the titular “Martian,” sums up his being stranded on Mars with this choice phrase:
I’m pretty much fucked.
And yeah, he was –
IF he hadn’t happened to be a world-class botanist and engineer. If that seems rather convenient, perhaps it is, but NASA picks their astronauts based on their ability to work smart, hard, and fast through any given problem. The other characters, though of course not as fleshed out as Watney, all have the same traits, and I believe that any of them probably would’ve found a way to survive, too. That, to me, is also a marker of a great book, where the “Chosen One” is really more of the “Unlucky One.” (Or Lucky, as the case may be. But I digress.)
Watney must fight for his life using every scrap of scientific knowledge he has at his disposal (including a wonderfully dry sense of humor that prevents this novel from being ridiculously hard sci-fi). It’s terribly clear that only double-checking and triple-checking every equation keeps him from instantly dying at any given moment.
There’s probably precious few of us who would root for mathematics in any situation, but in The Martian, math helps keep Watney healthy. Technology helps keep him breathing. Science helps to provide him with a plan. Engineering helps to provide him the means to that plan. Altogether, they keep him alive. Watney may be the only human on the entire planet, but he’s certainly not alone.
This isn’t to say, of course, that human emotion is lacking. Watney cries. He gets angry. He becomes happy when something finally works, and manages to laugh when shit hits the fan (literally). The other characters experience the same, with his fellow astronauts also feeling guilt and remorse for their fallen comrade. The NASA team back on Earth also go through a wide range of emotions as they deal with the situation on Mars. But these are all treated as normal, human reactions, and they don’t solely affect how the plot moves forward. Commander Lewis has survivor’s guilt and that drives her character, but she makes certain decisions because they’re the right ones, not because she can’t stand the guilt. Also, nearly every joke is tailored for nerds, without leaving those not in the know behind. The suspense that keeps the plot rockin’ along (and allowed me to read it in four hours) is because Weir explains the situation with pure fact: Watney isn’t going to die from self-imposed insanity or lack of human contact, but because he’ll starve. It’s that simple.
(Of course, the emotion that is present makes the ending of the novel so much more touching and perfectly true to life.)
Don’t worry, this isn’t really a spoiler (c’mon, you’ve seen Castaway and Apollo 13, right? Even knowing the Titanic sinks shouldn’t stop you from enjoying the movie). The Martian is so much more than if he survives, but how – truly a “journey, not the destination” book. It’s 400 pages, after all – that’s a lot of science to do! And there’s rarely a dull moment. Weir wisely jumps around in perspective from Watney to NASA to the Hermes to a couple omniscient scenes (though these admittedly were a little too heavy-handed). But though, as I’ve said, emotion gives the novel its heart and humor its soul, science is its brain, controlling everything. With science as his ally – not baseless hope or clever witticisms – Watney believes he can live. He believes in himself because he believes in science.
. . . Yeah, Tyson really liked the movie. SCIENCE!!
Header image: The Martian by Andy Weir, published February 11th 2014 by Crown.