Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

I learned the “read-the-book-before-you-watch-the-movie” lesson the hard way: with Harry Potter. Somehow I made it all the way to the sophomore year of college before reading the books, and by then it was too late. I had seen all the movies, so the universe had already been imagined by someone else. I had messed up.

So now, if there’s even a small chance that I’ll want to read the book behind the movie, I won’t let myself watch the movie before finishing the book. My decision to read Andy Weir’s The Martian is the latest product of this rule.

Why The Martian? First, my dad and sister raved about it. Second, Matt Damon stars in the movie version, and my three favorite movies are Ocean’s 11, The Bourne Identity, and Good Will Hunting — enough said. So, locked out of the movie until I’d finished the book, I finally got around to reading.

I’m of the opinion that you can’t fairly judge a piece of writing without considering what it’s trying to accomplish. A reader who lambasts a particular novel may simply be scoring it against the wrong criteria. Admittedly, some books are tricky to pin down so it can be challenging to determine what the right criteria are. Not so for the The Martian, which is practically stapled to its own rubric. It has two goals:

  1. To ask the question, If a man were stranded on Mars, could we get him back safely?
  2. To answer that question in a way that is both entertaining and scientifically possible.

Viewed through this lens, The Martian is a roaring success.

The Martian wastes no time in crossing off its first objective. Here’s how it starts:

Log Entry: Sol 6
I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion.
Fucked.
Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.
I don’t know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.
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.
Let’s see…where do I begin?

Right there, apparently: that’s a damn satisfying intro if you ask me. It takes one page for The Martian to ask its big question and only a few more to set the scene. We quickly learn that Mark Watney is one of six astronauts on the Ares 3 mission but — spoiler alert — the only one left on the Red Planet when things go wrong. The Martian follows the traditional three-part storytelling model — 1) get your protagonist stuck in a tree, 2) throw rocks at him, 3) help him come down — with unabashed sincerity. The metaphor could only be more literal if Watney were an arborist instead of a botanist.

Yes, you read that correctly. Mark Watney is not only an astronaut but a botanist, too. He’s also a mechanical engineer. Why is Watney a botanist and a mechanical engineer? He tells us it’s because everyone on the Ares 3 crew is an expert in two scientific fields and his happen to be those ones. But it doesn’t take long to realize that his combo is more than fortuitous: it’s the only conceivable pairing that could give someone a fighting chance of solo survival on Mars.

The Martian strives to come across as more than fantasy and answer its big question in earnest, so it necessarily operates within the tight framework of the laws of physics. As a result Watney has his work cut out for him. Generating enough water and food to survive is only the beginning. If he wants to get back to Earth, he’s going to have to do more than tend to his potato garden and wait for his friends at NASA to come and get him. One of the many issues he must confront is that everyone thinks he’s dead.

If watching a brilliant and charismatic scientist invent his way out of a dire situation seems like fun, then The Martian is for you. The majority of the book occurs on the Martian surface and takes the form of Watney’s journal entries. Of course, a feel-good novel about a human stranded on Mars can only end one way, so for all of Watney’s challenges there’s hardly any real suspense. Weir is too obviously invested in answering his question in the affirmative to let his protagonist be “the only human being to have died on Mars.” And that’s OK. Instead of worrying about whether Mark will find a way to survive after the umpteenth disaster nearly kills him, you can relax and enjoy seeing how he does it.

I can understand why the constant back-and-forth of “shit, I’m fucked” and “phew, that was close” may seem pedantic or even annoying to some readers, but for me the ride was pure joy. I happily went along with the sorcery and catastrophe, and I couldn’t get enough of Weir’s science experiments. He did a phenomenally thorough job of crafting Watney’s challenges and their solutions. One example: he wrote computer programs to simulate the orbital paths taken by his fictional spacecraft. And for anyone who has trouble accepting the technical details, I say to you, Shouldn’t suspending your disbelief be easier in low-gravity?

Weir impresses with the precision of his calculations, but The Martian succeeds because of a different type of precision: its limited scope. It is exactly as long as it needs to be to accomplish what it sets out to. It eschews themes, morals, and pretty much anything that resembles a literary device. Another author might have teased some ethical quandaries out of Watney’s predicament — What does it mean to be abandoned? When is a life worth saving? — but I got the sense that these questions never occurred to Weir. With his focus on the science behind the story, it’s no wonder that Weir leaves major areas of The Martian underexposed, and it’s no problem, either.

There is a problem, however, when Weir tries to find a happy medium between doubling down on a topic and leaving it alone. Characterization is one example: it’s shallow at its best and clichéd at its worst. Watney isn’t the only character in The Martian. There’s also a supporting cast comprising some folks at NASA and the other astronauts from Ares 3, and Weir cannot help but give each of them a little too much attention. The result is a hodgepodge of about a dozen half-baked characters who only slow down the story. We probably don’t need to know if a young woman operating satellites for NASA gets a promotion, and we certainly don’t need to be there when her superiors argue over it, but Weir feels otherwise.

Unfortunately, Weir’s characterization pitfalls extend to Watney as well, who comes off feeling flat. He’s easy to imagine but hard to believe. His inspired will to survive against all odds never gets explained; I was left with the impression that he only wants to survive because Weir wants him to. In other words, Watney doesn’t harbor his own desires, and this cheapens the narrative because desires are what bring characters to life. How can it be that we spend nearly the entire book inside Watney’s head but never get close to his thoughts?

If you can forgive the minor missteps in characterization, you’re left with an exciting and entertaining book rooted in science, glorious science. The Martian showcases Weir’s ability to ask a magnificent question and then distill the answer into an action-packed novel instead of a drawn-out trilogy. Like space travel, writing is all about keeping only what you need and cutting out the excess, and The Martian travels light.

It’s a shame it’s not in theaters anymore.