Review: The Martian, by Andy Weir

18007564>>Published: February 2014

>>Finally got around to it: March 2014

It’s a strange feeling. Everywhere I go, I’m the first. Step outside the rover? First guy ever to be there! Climb a hill? First guy to climb that hill! Kick a rock? That rock hadn’t moved in a million years!

I’m the first guy to drive long-distance on Mars. The first guy to spend more than thirty-one sols on Mars, The first guy to grow crops on Mars. First, first, first!

I wasn’t expecting to be first at anything. I was the fifth crewman out of the MDV when we landed, making me the seventeenth person to set foot on Mars. The egress order had been determined years earlier. A month before launch, we all got tattoos of our “Mars numbers.” Johanssen almost refused to get her “15” because she was afraid it would hurt. Here’s a woman who had survived the centrifuge, the vomit comet, hard-landing drills and 10k runs. A woman who fixed a simulated MDV computer failure while being spun around upside-down. But she was afraid of a tattoo needle.

Man, I miss those guys.

Jesus Christ, I’d give anything for a five-minute conversation with anyone. Anyone, anywhere, about anything.

I’m the first person to be alone on an entire planet.

***

Mark Watney is fucked.

Don’t take my word for it—he’ll tell you himself, several times in fact throughout the course of Andy Weir’s debut novel. The Martian is Watney’s story, from start to finish. Sure, the good folks at NASA play an integral role, as do his crewmates, but make no mistake: the spotlight belongs to Watney.

Let’s rewind a bit: The Martian begins in the aftermath of a tragic series of events. As part of the six-person mission to Mars known as Ares 3, astronaut and botanist Mark Watney was involved in an incident that left him stranded, abandoned and thought dead by his crewmates who were forced to evacuate the planet just six days into a month long mission, due to an unexpected and vicious sandstorm. Against all odds, Watney survives being impaled by a thin antennae and is forced to come to terms with his deadly, changed reality: he’s alone on an uninhabitable planet with minimal gear and rations, and even fewer options for survival or rescue.

Watney is forced to do an immediate assessment of the situation: with a great deal of ingenuity (and the ability to harvest his own bodily waste), Watney’s botanist training affords him the chance to construct a small potato farm which will help increase his odds of survival. Though even with such ingenuity, it would take an almost impossible amount of luck for him to survive the four years until the scheduled arrival of the Ares 4 mission. However, when thanks to satellite surveillance NASA learns Watney is still alive, the novel splits into two parts: Watney’s first-person accounts of life on Mars and the seemingly insurmountable and nearly life-ending crises that he is confronted with on an almost daily basis, and NASA (and eventually his crewmates from the Ares 3 mission) working around the clock to figure out some way of bringing Watney home safely—or at least extending his ability to survive until help can get to him.

The Martian is immediately engaging. Watney is equal parts a brilliant scientific and mathematical mind and a sarcastic asshole. His caustic sense of humour serves a twin purpose of keeping him sane amidst his increasing loneliness and giving him a natural layman’s ability to impart information to the reader in such a way as to be digestible, no matter how advanced or outlandish in concept. This duality is essential for keeping readers engaged for what is, in essence, a 370-page series of MacGyver-themed simulations, laced with a healthy dose of Murphy’s Law.

The Martian walks a very fine line of accessibility as Weir lays the mathematics on thick. If even reading about equations, on any level, is going to drive you up the wall, this is not the book for you. However, like the Alfonso Cuarón film Gravity, the veracity of the science does not matter so much as the author’s ability to sell it—which he does, admirably, even the almost impossible to believe “Rich Purnell Maneuver.” Due to the ever changing and always threatening nature of Watney’s situation, the equations are always in flux: adaptation is the name of the game, which keeps the narrative moving swiftly along without it ever falling too deeply into technical minutiae that, admittedly, very few reading this book would ever truly be capable of appreciating.

Watney’s aforementioned sarcasm goes a great distance in mitigating possible scientific exhaustion, but the novel’s ability to expand gradually to involve and embrace the views of others (NASA and the remaining crew of the Ares 3 mission in particular) is what keeps it moving at an almost filmic pace. From CNN hosting a daily catch-up show on all-things Watney, to the American post office issuing, and then being forced to recall a commemorative Mark Watney stamp (because, of course, they don’t put living people on stamps), the gradual expansion of the narrative manages to pull the rest of the world into the situation, even if they are only passive bystanders to the greatest reality television survivalist show ever conceived. The effect is cumulative, the tension strong.

Despite the often dire circumstances, I laughed out loud several times while reading The Martian. Weir fully embraces Watney’s more abrasive traits:

Plastic might not burn, but anyone who’s played with a balloon knows it’s great at building up static charge. Once I do that, I should be able to make a spark just by touching a metal tool.

Fun fact: This is exactly how the Apollo 1 crew died. Wish me luck!

Additionally, being unintentionally and retroactively trolled by his crewmates, who left behind USB keys of Disco music and the entire series runs of Three’s Company and The Dukes of Hazzard as well as a fairly limited selection of multimedia distractions, was rather hilarious.

Without wanting to spoil too much, I did find a few instances where the narrative slipped a bit for me. For the most part, the novel is an effective mix of styles, employing first-person narration through Watney’s Mars-based logs and third-person narration for everything off-planet. However, in a couple of instances, Weir would stand outside of Watney’s head and watch his actions from above with a more esoteric style of prose than what’s used at any other point in the narrative (this is specifically the case—slight spoiler alert—when he rolls his vehicle on approach to his final destination). This slightly awkward change in tone doesn’t hurt the overall book, but it is momentarily distracting.

The Martian is a hell of a read. Weir’s pacing sits quite comfortably in that oft-occupied space between literary work and Hollywood summer blockbuster—more intelligently written and nuanced than the majority of popcorn fiction I’ve read in recent years, but still identifiably pop excitement in every sense. And that’s not a bad thing at all.

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