Ahead of the movie adaptation from director Ridley Scott, Matthew Kresal brings the novel of The Martian home.
Andy Weir's The Martian is a book that has been on my radar for awhile now. It has only been recently though that I've acquired it and only after the release of the first trailer for its film adaptation (due for release this fall) that I actually picked it up to read. I wish I had done so much sooner as Weir's novel is one of the best of any genre that I've read in recent memory.
The premise of The Martian is simple enough. During NASA's Ares Three mission, the crew is forced to abort the mission prematurely due to a massive dust storm, during which Mark Watney, the mission's botanist, is killed and his body left behind. Except that it turns out that he isn't dead at all with Whatey soon finding himself in a struggle to survive with minimal supplies and little chance for rescue. In short it's the basic survival story premise with a 21st century twist, something which gives the novel its power.
At its heart, The Martian is the story of one human being on a desolate world in a struggle to survive. Move beyond the real science behind the Mars mission and the trappings that go with it (which are a part of the novel of course) and The Martian speaks to what seems to make us human. This is a tale of how we are capable of surmounting the seemingly impossible with a little know how and MacGyver like ingenuity. Yet, and perhaps just as importantly, this is also a story of human fallibility as often Watney's decisions and actions lead to unexpected consequences that he has to deal with. That's only one part of what makes this novel as good as it is though.
A sizable chunk of what makes it work is how Weir chooses to tell it. From the opening lines (which are amongst the most memorable you'll likely ever read) to it's closing, this is astronaut Mark Watney's story. The book is largely told in first person entries in a journal that Watney keeps initially in the hope that someone might find it one day and then as a record of his attempts to hopefully await rescue. One positive about that is it avoids the cliché of having to figure out why he's explaining the science behind what he's doing (something that makes the novel accessible to people like some of my family who normally turn their noses at science fiction). It does more than that though. In telling the story this way, we get a very good grip on who Watney is: determined, ingenious and good humored, but not a perfect human being by any means. It's something that's endearing as we see him become frustrated, angry at himself for his mistakes while also being aware that he has little time (or anything else for that matter) to waste if he's going to survive. It also helps that Watney is a bit of a smart ass and, being a nerd (well he is an astronaut!), makes the occasional and hilarious pop culture reference. Be prepared to laugh out loud at some of the jokes and comments made as the novel goes along though you might get some interesting looks if you do so in public. That is the strength of Watney as a character and Weir as a novelist.
Occasionally though, Weir shifts his narrative away from Watney and back towards Earth. We see NASA officials at first dealing with thinking Watney is dead, and then trying to figure out a way of bringing him home alive. Though these sections are told in third person you still get a strong sense of who everyone is, especially the crew of Ares Three who learn their crew mate is alive and that they inadvertently left him behind. While the novel is full of suspense and is (to use a cliché that I usually hate) a page turner, I wonder if it could have been even more tense if it lacked these sequences. What would it have been like for the reader to be like Watney and have no more information than he did? That's a minor quibble though and one that shouldn't keep anyone from reading it.
My best advice about The Martian then is to read it. It's a well told tale with an interesting premise, a strong protagonist, plenty of tension and humor packed into a 369 page package. If you haven't read it yet, do so ASAP and enjoy one of the best novels you're likely to pick up anytime soon.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.