“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.”
I assume you guys are all caught up on Paul’s latest books, and looking for some solid reading material to help finish out the last month or so of summer. Well, look no further than Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian. It’s not often that I find myself discovering great books the same year they come out, but… well, I did this time. So I’m passing the knowledge onto you.
The Martian is a rare find. It’s basically a near-future science fiction thriller. More plausible than most; it’s unsurprising to discover its author is a professional software engineer and an amateur science expert. Despite the hard science pedigree, it’s also INSANELY compelling reading material. For someone who spent his teen years reading classic Michael Crichton, this was a total home run.
Meet me after the jump for some more convincing. And don’t worry; this review is spoiler free!
I don’t usually go in for plot synopsises (synopses? Synopsi? Will look that up later.), but this is an easy one. Mark Watney serves as crew member on the Hermes, a ship sent to Mars for one in a series of scientific expeditions. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that he servED on that ship, since the mission begins with a catastrophe that leaves him stranded on the Red Planet, thought dead, while his crew heads back to Earth. Now, Watney must brave the harsh elements of Mars in an attempt to stay alive long enough to be rescued.
So, yeah, there are shades of Robinson Crusoe here. Unlike Robinson Crusoe on Mars (an actual movie), however, one of the remarkable features of The Martian is how scientifically sound Mark Watney’s process is. I mean, I’m not technically a botanist or an astrophysicist, but his struggles for survival are rendered in that particular way that just FEELS like the writer knows this stuff backwards and forwards. Life on Mars (an actual TV show) is tricky business, and the scientific plausibility of Watney’s plight only adds to whatever tension already exists in a “stranded all alone in a hostile environment” narrative.
FYI, since there’s not a movie yet, all these photos are from Robinson Crusoe on Mars.
Scientific plausibility is all well and good, but it’s a testament to this book that the single most engaging element of it is our fearless hero. Watney is a great narrator; he’s funny and human, and the sort of likable guy we don’t see nearly as often as we ought to. The Martian neatly sidesteps any sort of manufactured drama by casting its hero as the kind of character who deals with pretty much any challenge disaster can throw at him by a simple quip or an angry swear word. There’s never a forced breakdown; never a passage of self-pity.
From everything I’ve read about real astronauts, this is fairly accurate. It’s also so, so refreshing to someone like me who hates manufactured conflict in stories. The simple fact that spacemen survive in space is one of the most astonishing achievements in human history. I doubt most of them are as funny as our fearless Mark Watney, though.
Look, I swear this is a real movie.
The sum total of all this is one of the most engrossing, difficult-to-put-down reads I’ve come across in a good long while. Andy Weir’s prose is clean and engaging, navigating both the aforementioned scientific processes and the more traditional character-arc stuff with ease. He utilizes a fairly limited point of view; much of the story is made up of Watney’s journal entries. Sort of a space-age epistolary novel. You might think this would impact the suspense or credibility of certain passages, but a) it doesn’t and b) Weir’s more than willing to switch writing styles if it suits his purposes.
After a book like this, I’ll pretty much blind-buy whatever Weir turns out next. Like I said, his blend of suspense and science directly recalls Michael Crichton*. Like Crichton’s best work, once you get about forty pages into The Martian you’ll be hard pressed to find a good stopping point. I completely ruined a night of sleep over this one.
I highly recommend you do the same.
*Back when he was good. And honestly, I don’t think Crichton ever had a lead character this charismatic. He did write Jurassic Park and Sphere, though, so he still probably wins so far.