Andy Weir’s first novel, The Martian: A Novel, has garnered a lot of buzz lately: it’s an addicting, rapid-fire book that runs along with a manic energy that makes it difficult to put down. You know how you slow down while passing an accident on the high way? I had that reaction as I blew through it, waiting to see just how Astronaut Mark Watney would survive.
The plot of the book is fairly straight forward: a low-ranking astronaut, Watney, is stranded on Mars when a storm prompts the evacuation of his expedition just six days after they arrived. When he awakens, he finds that he’s alone on the planet, with no way to call home to let NASA know he’s still alive, and more importantly, let them know that he needs a ride home. With only the mission’s remaining supplies and equipment, he needs to figure out just how to survive until the next mission is scheduled to arrive.
A lot’s been made of the fact that this is a hard science novel: there’s a lot of technical details throughout the book, from calculations of air volume to chemical reactions to physical engineering. All of this gives the book a technical, grounded feel, and you can imagine that someday, this book will come true, or at the very least, be used by NASA to plan for a Mars mission. It’s near-term outlook and reliance on strictly realistic components makes this a safe science fiction novel. It’s the sort of book that’s okay for the general public to read because it could really happen; there’s no aliens, galactic empires or expeditionary backstory that require any great leaps of faith for the reader. It seems to work well, too: the book currently sits at #11 on the New York Times bestseller list for Hardcover fiction, and is ranked #158 in books over on Amazon (#7 for Science Fiction).
That isn’t meant to denigrate the book: it’s easy to see why it’s so popular when it’s cracked open. Weir’s narrative plays out as Watney recounts his misfortunes in an audio log, occasionally jumping back to Earth and in between to other characters for some outside context. They, like the reader, are captivated by this slowly unfolding disaster. There are some nice touches to this: cable news puts Watney front and center for their own segment. Like Apollo 13, all eyes become focused on the skies above, waiting to see if the astronaut will return home safely. Weir’s Watney is a fun character: witty, immature, resourceful and optimistic, it’s hard to do anything but root for him to get through the crisis, and you can’t help but cheer for him as he overcomes just about everything that Mars throws at him. This is high-tech Robinson Crusoe, with a much steeper difficulty curve.
Space disaster narratives have been popular lately: last year’s big film was Gravity, which featured a similar premise: an astronaut, stranded after an accident, must find her way back home, using only what she’s got with her. These are good stories to root for, because at their core, they’re about humanity against nature.
What holds The Martian back from being a *great* book is what separates it from Gravity. Watney’s trials are technical in nature, and Weir never quite spends the time to step back and have him question his survival or do anything but blindly plow forward from task to task. Gravity presented a far more interesting character story that addressed some much larger themes: Stone’s own challenges (fall) and eventual recommitment to live life on her own terms make it a much stronger narrative that makes me come back time and time again.
But, I enjoyed the hell out of The Martian. It was an exciting read from start to finish, one that kept me up late into the evening, frantically turning pages to see what happened next. That’s what every good book should do, and this does it nicely.