The Martian is an odd book to review. I’m giving it three stars but it could be two or four, depending on what you want from a novel about an astronaut stranded on Mars. The novel does exactly what it sets out to do, the format is laid out very clearly early on, and the plot all comes together very nicely at the end.
The novel tells the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars when the third science expedition to land on Mars is unexpectedly forced to return home due to dangerous weather conditions (a sandstorm) that might damage their habitat or their return vehicle. Team botanist Mark Watney is thought dead and so his fellow astronauts leave him behind. Luckily he has their habitat and equipment from the curtailed mission, plus the can-do personality to improvise with this equipment. Weir thus sets up the means for both his survival and a potential rescue.
The format of the novel is, well, for want of a better description – a science lesson. Watney is confronted by a series of science problems – how to grow food, how to communicate with NASA on Earth, for example, and his first person log entries show him doing the calculations, applying the scientific principles, encountering unexpected consequences, before ultimately solving the problem. This format is repeated many times through the novel, right down to (sometimes) explaining the mathematical calculations required.
The characterisation of Watney is of a broadly likeable scientist with a can-do attitude. Probably the perfect candidate for the position in real life, but I found his wisecracks, developing love for the 70s tv and disco music left behind by his colleagues, to be all surface. There was no depth to his personality – no history, no memories of family, girlfriend, old pets.
The book isn’t just a series of Watney’s log entries. We also have narrative interludes with the NASA technicians back on Earth and the crewmates on their long return journey to Earth. There isn’t much characterisation here too: each one is similarly flippant and occasionally sarcastic (though not as flippant as Watney).
I’m a big fan of tales of early spaceflight, particularly the exploration of the solar system, Stephen Baxter’s Voyage is a favourite hard SF guilty pleasure, even though my tastes usually run more towards the literary side of SF. The story of Watney’s survival (or otherwise) is well put together and includes all of the required elements of peril, derring-do and despair. This is NASA and Earth only a few years into the future, when Martian exploration is developing in the same way that Apollo explored the moon. The technology is recognisable, with the addition of the ion drive that has powered them (and two earlier missions) to Mars.
So why don’t I really know if I like it? Well I enjoyed the plot and it is a convincing description of quite how dangerous and inhospitable Mars is, and Watney’s wiseass personality gives the novel enough of a sense of fun that it makes for a good beach book, or other distraction.
I personally found the long passages where Watney deduces a solution and then explains it to be digressive, skippable, and lacking in excitement. But then I’m a literature graduate. I’m not looking for the poetry of Martian solitude or anything like that, but equally some of the science in these digressions passes me by, and so much of it piled on top of more descriptive science seems to diminish my respect for Watney (and the author)’s inventiveness. He becomes a science bore somewhere around the middle of the book and I only began to like him again as we neared the climax and there were multiple elements at stake beyond simple survival in a hostile environment.
But I’m not sure I’m really the target audience for the book. I’m not anti-science or anything foolish like that, but this is clearly a book written for those who love the ingenious deduction of the Mythbusters TV show, or the Discovery channel, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
That isn’t necessarily a complaint. What I am saying is that I am not the book’s target audience, yet I enjoyed it on an aiport thriller, beach-read level. If you like the ingenuity of science, love Mythbusters and want to understand the science and logic of both the problems and the solutions necessary to survive in the ultimate hostile environment then this could be the book about Mars for you. It could stoke the love of science in kids and teenagers and it should work well for those who love the days when science fiction meant fiction about science.