For the record… I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, “Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.”
And it’ll be right, probably. ‘Cause I’ll surely die here. Just not on Sol 6 when everyone thinks I did. (1)
Andy Weir first posted his debut novel online in 2011. More recently, it was picked up for general publication and became a bestseller, receiving praise from the likes of Larry Niven, Wil Wheaton, and Chris Hadfield. Next month, the movie, directed by Ridley Scott, will receive its mainstream premiere.
Does this hard SF thriller live up to the hype?
Title: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
First published in book form in 2014.
An astronaut, believed killed in an accident, gets left on Mars when the crew of his mission evacuates. How long can he survive?
See: Story. Weir has told a story worth hearing in an interesting and suspenseful fashion.
See Characterization and Editing.
Imagery: 3/6 Weir, software engineer and space nerd, proves an excellent technical writer, with an understanding of science beyond the average SF writer’s. He’s less effective at describing the world and its inhabitants. His story moves along nicely, but people expecting Red Mars will be disappointed.1
Story: 6/6 Reviewers of a more literary bend sometimes undervalue storytelling. Readers of bestsellers don’t. Weir has told a rip-roaring story that becomes increasingly suspenseful as it develops, and a wide readership, inside and outside of fandom, have responded.
Characterization: 4/6 Mark Watney is an engaging, inventive, and tenacious smart-ass, and we get behind his survival alongside the inhabitants of near-future earth. He’s not fully realized, however, and we see almost none of the psychological effects we might expect of anyone, even a trained astronaut, in his difficult and traumatizing predicament.
The other characters have have at best one or two dimensions. I would like to think that NASA’s interactions are more complex than those of stock nerds in, say, a TV sitcom about an IT department, but I could be wrong.
Emotional Response: 5/6 Yeah, the book’s overrated. It remains a good read.
Editing: 4/6 A brilliant young nerd published a cool novel on his blog. If you didn’t know the novel’s origin before you read it, you might have guessed them.
Overall Score: 5/6 The Da Vinci Code, an engaging but silly adventure, sold zillions of copies and helped mainstream crackpot conspiracy theories. Fifty Shades of Gray, a poorly-written piece of modified fanfic, became a cultural phenomenon and one of the best-selling novels of recent years. Both will be regarded, I suspect, as Victorian scholars regard Marie Corelli. She outsold Dickens, but her books have become unreadable relics, reflections of their period rather than literature for the ages.
The Martian is better than these.
I thought of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, a well-researched novel with interesting characters and an engrossing plot but significant period silliness. The 1969 potboiler became the template for a cinematic masterpiece, reinvented and reinvigorated the gangster genre, and mainstreamed awareness of the Mafia.
This book features a strong plot and excellent technical writing. Its flaws mostly concern its characters and style. A movie can transcend those shortcomings, and I suspect (and advance reviews support my suspicion) Ridley Scott’s adaptation will be one of the major films of 2015. We may be in for a phenomenon that mainstreams interest in hard SF and space travel. This book may well play a role in reviving the space program. All of these things would be good.
In total, The Martian receives 30/42
1. We will be reviewing Kim Stanley Robinson’s most recent work very soon.