Book Review | The Martian

I read this a while back, but wanted to revisit it and finally write a review for it!

Some vaguely alien-looking rocks to go with the book

The Martian by Andy Weir is one of the most impressive debut novels out there. It’s also one of the best modern sci-fi books I’ve read.

Mark Watney, along with five other astronauts, is caught in a dust storm a few days into their “Ares” mission to Mars. As the rest of the crew makes for the ship, Watney is struck by debris and tossed out of sight. The others search for him, but have to declare him dead. They leave, grieving. However, Watney is still alive. With finite supplies and food, he must survive entirely on his own on Mars, while the world watches.

This book’s approach to science fiction is more realistic than most of its genre. Television shows and films set in space often incorporate pseudoscience/basically magic. More often than not, science fiction is essentially fantasy with more computers and/or spaceships. Not so with The Martian: Weir takes the familiar spaceship/alien planet idea, but inserts much more realistic science. (Well, it’s seems realistic to me, a layman).

The problems Watney faces—how to grow food, have enough water, and travel thousands of kilometers, all in the wasteland that is Mars—are presented almost as word problems. He walks through the potential pitfalls and details of the science behind both the problem and his solution. Everything feels perfectly logical. Now, if this premise of one man talking about how he solved various problems using math and science most people don’t use everyday sounds boring, fear not. Because while this book hypothetically could sound like a teacher desperately trying to make math sound fun to a crowd of disinterested teens, it actually comes off as an engaging adventure—and this is largely due to the character of Mark Watney.

Most of the story comes in the form of Watney’s entries in his personal log, which is a masterstroke. The way he tackles each issue, besides revealing his intelligence and resourcefulness, shows other facets of his personality. Humor is his coping mechanism, which brings many hilarious quips. His dry sense of humor seeps off the page, and while his fear is palpable throughout, the reader never doubts in his competence. Overall he is a great, sympathetic protagonist.

Sometimes, the narrative style verges on telling too much rather than showing (a concept constantly tossed around when discussing how to write well). However, this actually makes perfect sense. After all, Watney is writing in the hopes someone will someday read his log and see what he did—assuming he doesn’t survive. Thus, the log becomes a convenient vessel to explain the science. Most people don’t know astrophysics or exactly what an astronaut does, so having it laid out enables us to invest fully in the story. We can grasp his pain and fear, and also triumphs, better by understanding exactly what he has to do to survive.

Watney’s log is not the only point-of-view, though. Other scenes written in a more traditional third-person-omniscient POV, tell what is happening on Earth and on Hermes, the ship taking the other astronauts home. The characters are all well-written. None quite have the depth or complexity Watney has, but still serve their purposes. Some of my favorites are Venkat Kapoor, Mindy Park, and Rick Martinez. Luckily, as people band together to try to bring Watney home, Weir does not bog down the narrative with too many other characters. We have Watney and these few other key characters, yet at the same time always know that this is a monumental, thousands-strong effort.

Which leads me to my next point: the theme of human ingenuity, but also of human compassion. The Martian declares how people instinctively, fundamentally, are driven to help others in need. Though this is shown on a massive scale—after all, Watney’s situation is an international news story, with millions of dollars and innumerable people supporting the effort—it still rings true. Weir is a bit heavy-handed with this idea at the end, but that does not negate its truth. It’s optimistic but not overly so.

In the end, The Martian is a wonderful story. Watney’s sardonic wit and intelligence make him a fantastic protagonist; the form of the story gives us a deep look into his mind while also allowing us to be privy to information he doesn’t have; the plot proceeds at a good pace with a balance between hope and tension. The suspenseful climax in particular is executed well. And especially for a first novel, this is astounding.

Overall rating: 9/10

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