I have a confession to make.
I read Andy Weir’s The Martian because of the cover. It’s shiny and dramatic, features an astronaut, and, well… it’s really shiny.
Earlier this year, I read An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, the autobiography of Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut and former commander of the International Space Station, and Packing for Mars by Mary Roach, a non-fiction examination of what it takes to survive in space. So, after two non-fiction books, The Martian seemed like the perfect cap-off to my mini-tour of our solar system.
The difference between the three books is obvious from the get-go, most notably the backgrounds and first-hand experiences of the three authors. Hadfield’s book draws on his own personal knowledge of being an astronaut, including a harrowing tale of a time when he was literally blinded while doing a spacewalk. Roach’s book is a well-researched examination of the amusing and relatable aspects of human life in space. Weir, on the other hand, is an admitted hobbyist, and his novel combines Roach’s obsessive level of research with the a mile-a-minute plotting of Michael Crichton’s best science thrillers.
“I’m the sort of geek who will stay up all night to watch the news and see a Mars probe land,” Weir told Shawn Speakman, in an interview with Suvudu. “So I started out with a pretty heavy hobbyist knowledge of the material. Then, while writing the book I did tons of research. I wanted the science to be as accurate as I could possibly make it.”
Through careful application of existing sciences, Weir manages to maintain a level of believability equal to the breakneck pace of the narrative.
Weir’s intense dedication to research and realism paid dividends. Beginning life as a self-published serial on Watney’s website, The Martian makes so many bold moves that it required razor sharp precision as it navigated the hostile situation that its narrator, Mark Watney, faces on nearly every page. Many of the books most intense moments, and hair-raising escapes, are built on the back of exact scientific methods. If suspension of belief is broken for even just a moment, the illusion is gone and you’re left with nothing more than a bad Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Through careful application of existing sciences (and more than one instance where luck proves more powerful than preparation), Weir manages to maintain a level of believability equal to the breakneck pace of the narrative.
From the first page to the last, The Martian whips the reader along with all the [insert velocity-related pun here] and demands to be read late into the night.
“Just one more log,” The Martian whispers. “What’s sort of trouble is Watney going to face when you turn the page?”
Like any thriller, The Martian relies on providing increasingly poor odds of survival. Like any good thriller, The Martian navigates Watney out of these situations by the skin of his teeth, and through believable means. Every page is filled with either the promise of Watney’s demise, or a clever solution to a situation that seemed hopeless.
Some of the tension is softened by The Martian‘s narrative structure: Watney’s hand-typed mission logs. These logs, written by Watney as he records his attempt at survival in the hopes that a future Mars mission might recover them/him, run the gamut from short vignettes, to full-blown scientific explanations of what it takes to grow potatoes in Martian soil, to Watney’s first thoughts as he watched his crew mates blast into orbit.
LOG ENTRY: SOL 6
I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion.
Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.
I don’t even 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?
One issue with this approach is that the logs have difficulty establishing an emotional connection with the reader. They’re interesting and engaging to read, but, by their very nature, the logs are recorded history, rather than a personal dialogue between the reader and the storyteller. As a result, the novel lacks the intense emotional bond that readers often form with first-person narrators. This may or may not be an issue for all readers, after all, many readers will be looking for the equivalent of a summer blockbuster, and The Martian delivers there, but there is some narrative distance between Watney and the reader that might impact the their ability to really sink into The Martian‘s desperate conflict.
The novel only breaks away from these logs when it’s necessary to visit those helping Watney from Earth, or to give the reader a more omniscient perspective on events that transfer poorly (i.e. lack drama and suspense) when written after-the-fact by the (obviously still living) narrator. These off-Mars scenes are the root of one of the novel’s major flaws, which I’ll discuss later, but are essential for proper framing of the narrative and become increasingly important as the novel progresses.
One of the key factors for life in space, touched on by both Hadfield and Roach, is the mental taxation that threatens astronauts through every stage of their journey. Space is incredibly hostile to human life, and every second spent there is a fight to stay alive. The Martian admits to this, and spends most of its time communicating to readers how Watney fights that fight, however, there’s little engagement with the mental hurdles that Watney must overcome as he struggles with his isolation from the rest of humanity.
Actually, I was the very lowest ranked member of the crew. I would only be ‘in command’ if I were the only remaining person.
What do you know? I’m in command
Mark Watney, The Martian
Make no mistake, this isn’t Heart of Darkness. There’s no descent into madness. Hell, it’s not even Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, which at least dealt with its protagonist’s emotional reaction to being stranded alone in space. The Martian is more like the technical manual that a hobbyist scientist handed to Cuaron after a pass through the first draft of the film script.
I was going for realism above all else, so I ditched the idea of it being purely a one-man story and went another direction.
Gravity eschews most of its science for unbelievable-but-thrilling cinematics and drama, which Neil DeGrasse Tyson famously dissected, whereas Weir is more measured in his approach to survival in space.
“Originally I wanted the story to be just Mark on Mars the whole way through,” Weir told a Reddit user in a recent AMA. “But as it developed it became increasingly clear that NASA would notice he was alive. I was going for realism above all else, so I ditched the idea of it being purely a one-man story and went another direction.”
“I can’t wait till I have grandchildren. When I was younger, I had to walk to the rim of a crater. Uphill! In an EVA suit! On Mars, ya little shit! Ya hear me? Mars!”
It’s difficult not to compare The Martian to Cuaron’s Oscar-winning film. The broad strokes of their plots are almost identical: near-future, lone astronaut is stranded in space. The major point of divergence, however, is the level of ability, preparedness, and resources available to the two protagonists, The Martian‘s Mark Watney, and Gravity‘s Ryan Stone, buoyed by Weir’s obsession with scientific nuance. It’s made clear early on in Gravity that Stone is a medical-engineer-turned-rookie-astronaut with only six months of training before her trip into Earth’s orbit, which seems absurd if you think about it for more than the three seconds that the film gives you to digest the idea. Watney, on the other hand, has years of training and hundreds of EVA (Extra-vehicular activity) hours under his belt. Where Stone’s return to Earth is nothing short of miraculous, Watney’s tale is more methodical and, as a reward for Weir’s careful planning, more believable (on the scale of Optimus Prime riding a mechanical dinosaur -> Bruce Willis drilling an atomic bomb into an asteroid).
“Gravity is made from start to finish as a visual experience, and they have some unbelievably beautiful scenes,” Weir told Suvudu, comparing the blockbuster film to his novel. “It has hard sci-fi elements, but there are also a lot of things glossed over to make a more exciting movie. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think The Martian is much more focused on the realistic science and has a lot more problems for its hapless hero.”
Ultimately, the novel’s success with a reader will hinge on their ability to sink into and enjoy the sometimes pedantic science that Watney uses over his tenure on Mars. It’s generally interesting in a MacGuyver-kinda way, but also requires less knowledgable readers to approach the science as they would magic in a fantasy novel: just believe Watney when he says it works.
Weir does a fine job of conveying the novel’s science, much of which involves complex chemistry, to the reader in a way that makes them believe they understand the process that Watney is using to survive. Could I sustain a martian potato garden using water, martian soil, and human shit? No, but I believed that Watney’s science held up, thanks in part to Chris Hadfield’s blurb of the book, which he credits for its “fascinating technical accuracy.”
Watney’s likeable and clever, as often pointed out by other characters in the novel, the kinda guy that you’d like to have in your back pocket if you’re ever in a sticky situation, and his sense of humour is relentless and sharp. Since so much of the novel’s narrative is told in his voice, this gives The Martian a sense of levity that other authors might miss. Being stranded on Mars is tough shit, and that could potentially lead to a novel that becomes tiresome and difficult to enjoy with the wrong protagonist. Weir avoids this by casting the world’s most saccharine astronaut. It’s all partly to blame for the novel’s lack of engagement with the psychological effects of isolation, but ultimately ensures that it’s enjoyable to spend 300+ pages at his side. You want him to get off of Mars because, well… you like him.
One irritant that stems from both the novels’ scientific methodology and Watney’s personality is that things seem to come too easily for the botanist-cum-astronaut. Like Indiana Jones, Watney always seems to be on the good side of luck when things seem at their worst. Sure, he gets himself into sticky situations on nearly every page, but luck and unerring ingenuity always seem to get him through the day. When disaster waits of the starboard side, the wind nudges Watney to port. The novel’s mission log-style structure also creates a repetitive sense of Trouble appears/fade-to-black/lights-fade in/Watney explains why he’s so clever and how he’ll solve everything/fade-to-black/Oh, hey! Everything’s fine again.
Samantha Nelson of The A.V. Club explains away Watney’s clever perfection in her review, “The Martian manages to have a good excuse for having a hero who can solve almost every problem while still being hilarious: NASA had the luxury of only sending geniuses that can stay in good spirits while floating in space for months.” While this explanation isn’t likely to hold up against IRL astronauts and space missions, it’s just good enough to allow readers to accept that without Watney’s superhuman personality and evil genius-level intelligence, it’d just be a story about an astronaut’s short and tragic attempt to survive on Mars. Not much of a novel, right?
The Martian is bleak and intense, humorous, human, and hard to put down.
Unfortunately, the rest of the characters that surround Watney (metaphorically, he’s hundreds of thousands of kilometers away from most of them) are static and boring. The crew of the Hermes (who abandoned Watney) go about 20% of the way to being a Firefly-esque ensemble of interesting people, and the folks at NASA Mission Control are all cardboard cutouts with different titles slapped on them. They get the job done, and provide a framing narrative that helps to provide better context to Watney’s situation, but don’t expect to remember their names after closing the final page.
The Martian is bleak and intense, humorous, human, and hard to put down. I picked it up because I couldn’t resist the cover, and was lucky to find that the pages behind the cover lived up to my expectations. Where a summer blockbuster keeps you on the edge of your seat, and hides its mistakes by pumping adrenaline, The Martian leaves you white knuckled because you have time to think about why the hero’s probably not going to make it. But, The Martian will leave you with a smile on your face as Watney, through the wish fulfillment of his clever creator/author, somehow manages to avoid a grisly fate over-and-over again, just like a true action her. Like Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, Andy Weir’s The Martian is an edge-of-your-seat thriller that’s over before its flaws can bring it down.