This pseudo-review is of a book originally available for free on the author’s own website. After people clamoring to “take it with them” on an e-reader, Mr. Weir uploaded it to Amazon in 2012 and charged the minimum 99¢. Then the movie people came calling, and then the Big Publisher. The Martian is in production, slated for a November, 2015 release, starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott.
I’m intentionally not saying much about the plot here because…spoilers.
I don’t review books, or let’s say I never have.
See, if I really love a book, I’m usually so immersed I’m not paying attention to why I’m loving it. I’m lost in the story. And frankly, analyzing a story I connect with kind of…ruins it for me. I cherish that little bubble of having had an emotional tie to a piece of entertainment—be it literature, a movie or a television show. If I start digging too deep, I might see the flaws and lose that lovely naivete.
But reading The Martian by Andy Weir gave me a unique experience, not the least because there were points in the story where I was so stressed out I had to put my head up and gulp air. What really got me was that there were so many points in the book that I yanked myself out of the story. Out of sheer giddy surprise. And so, I decided to write about it, and to recommend it.
Let’s start with a couple of disclaimers.
- I don’t generally read sci-fi. The concepts have gotten a little big for me. Quantum-this and plasma-that. I haven’t kept up with science enough to read hard-core sci-fi seamlessly. If I don’t understand a concept, I have to go figure it out, and that means spending more time on Wikipedia than on the story. I don’t have that much leisure to expend on one book, so I tend to pass on sci-fi.
- I am picky to the point of ridiculous about the books I read, and I’m a total contrarian. If a book’s “the THING,” I probably pass just because, though not always. I’ve never read a Twilight book or a FSoG book, or just about anything Oprah recommends. (After reading a few of her early recommendations, I concluded we REALLY don’t have the same taste in books. This is helpful, though. It’s as important to have opinions/reviewers you know you disagree with as those you do, in my opinion. A consumer has to have ways of making choices.)
So why was I drawn to The Martian? I can’t really say, except that I read an article about it in Entertainment Weekly and the book sounded so fascinating. An astronaut gets stranded alone on Mars and has to survive. Whoa, cool! The simple premise sends the mind spinning with all sorts of possibilities. And then there was the opening sentence of the book: “I’m pretty much fucked.”
It didn’t hurt that the EW article was as much about the author as the book and I found Andy Weir instantly likeable. A writer I wanted to support. I bought the book and downloaded it to my Kindle, two years late to the party, but ready to go.
When I got to the end of chapter one I had my first big surprise moment. I thought, “I should tweet about this while I’m reading.” I was hooked. Hard. And I wanted to share my excitement. Why should that be a surprise? Most books I love have compelling first chapters, but I’ve never had the urge to want to tell anyone to READ THIS BOOK after a first chapter. As a writer, I was instantly aware that Weir had masterfully pulled off a feat with an extremely high degree of difficulty, a triple-cork 1440 of sorts. Eight pages. Action, character, setting and problem were all fully established in eight pages. Even though there is a good deal of techno-speak and mechanical jargon, it’s all accessible to a layperson, easily visualized, mostly because the protagonist, Mark Watney, narrates in a stunningly every-man voice. He’s a Mars astronaut for crying out loud, but his parts of the story feel a bit like having your next door neighbor tell you an amusing tale over beers across the fence. If your neighbor was an astronaut. And had been stranded on Mars.
After 7-ish pages of describing how he came to be in this predicament, and just what the predicament is, Watney wraps up Chapter One this way:
If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah, I’m fucked.
So yeah, I was hooked.
We spend the first chunk of the book with Watney on Mars. He’s totally alone, unable to communicate with Earth, and by sticking only with that part of the tale, the reader feels the isolation, too. I remember at one point musing, “I wonder what NASA’s thinking” and I imagine Weir must have fought the urge to tell that side of the tale in parallel from the get-go. But to do so would have significantly deflated the tension. First we had to know that Watney wasn’t going to settle for being “fucked” and actually had the skills and moxie to do something about it.
This is one of Weir’s gifts. To convince the reader that one man, alone on a planet, can fight the slimmest of odds with a hammer and duct tape. And to make us believe every bit of it. This is a sign of a highly skilled story-teller, and they are the authors I want to spend my time reading. I’m not saying anything about The Martian is absurd—I don’t really know how duct tape works in the Martian atmosphere—but if it is absurd, it doesn’t matter, because I believe. Just like I believed that Claire walked between standing stones in 1945 Scotland and ended up in 1742 in Outlander. Just like I believed that an evil force was inhabiting a Native American burial ground in Pet Sematary.
And of course, Weir’s Mark Watney has more at his disposal than a hammer and duct tape. He’s got mad skillz, as the kids say. He was the mission’s engineer and he’s a trained botanist, which just so happen to be the skills most useful for an astronaut stranded on Mars. He’s a masterful problem solver and outside-the-box thinker. Just the kind of guy who becomes an astronaut. He’s special, and yet so very unpretentious.
The Watney sections of the book are presented as log entries, so while we’re in his head, they are meant for keeping track of his doings, for outside eyes to read later. Which, thankfully, means not a lot of navel-gazing. There are some angsty moments, especially when he’s missing human contact, and we get his victories large and small (with exclamation points!) and his annoyances (with snarky commentary), but the doses of “woe is me” are very small, making natural-optimist Mark all the easier to root for.
The secondary characters, are fun to hang around with, too, especially NASA director of Mars operations Venkat Kapoor. One part admin, one part techie, one part humanist, ultimately practical and always empathetic, he balances nicely with Watney, and the other NASA/JPL characters revolve around him like moons of various size and importance.
I happily raced through the book over the course of a long weekend, (taking breaks when the tension ratcheted a little too tight) and as I sat at LAX waiting for my flight home, the final “surprise” moment caught me. My eyes teared up and I hitched a breath. I looked up to see if any of the people across from me had funny looks on their faces, if they’d heard my little sob. I had to turn off my Kindle, and this time I did tweet. I’m in the midst of the last phase of Andy Weir’s The Martian and I keep having to stop. Tears/worry/terror. So good. So effing good!
The Martian is not hard-to-grasp sci-fi. Mostly it’s a story of survival, the ultimate Man vs. Nature tale with an intrepid, unflappable and funny protagonist. I believe most sci-fi writers would say the best of their stories center on characters, that the science enhances rather than demands to take center stage. That is certainly the case in The Martian. It is a story that readers of all genres can enjoy by the simple fact of it being a good tale well told. If, like me, you wouldn’t normally pick up a sci-fi novel, I encourage you to take a chance. Put yourself in Andy Weir’s capable hands and go for a ride.
In case you haven’t figured it out, Curious Puppy gives The Martian Four Paws Way Up.