Book Review – The Martian

This was great.

I’ll begin by saying the main strength of the book is probably its sentiment balance. On one hand, it’s sensational and sentimental; as the climax approaches, the whole world is watching Mark on TV, so the ending is destined to be either heartbreaking or enormously crowd-pleasing. On the other hand, none of Mark’s log entries are particularly sappy. We don’t get any musing about the meaning of life. We don’t get any sections where Mark is seriously distraught or on the verge of suicide. He’s calm, methodical, and good-humored, which makes it fun to spend time with him.

It really proves that (in my opinion) when it comes to getting your reader to root for a character, building a personality for the character is more important than simply creating a backstory for them. We learn next to nothing about Mark’s family or friends back on Earth; the book is fairly minimalist, and we don’t even get physical descriptions of anyone. It’s a corrective to stories like Gravity or The Shallows that, while good, resort to unnecessary tragic backstories to get us to like the character. We don’t need that! They just need to be believable people!

For the first half of the book, I preferred the sections focused on Mark Watney alone on Mars. I don’t think dialogue is Andy Weir’s strongest suit, and some of the conversations back on Earth between the supporting characters – Venkat, Teddy, Mindy, Annie, etc. – were a little predictable. I didn’t think the humor came across as well in those sections; Mark was by far the funniest character, and sometimes when other characters tried to be snarky, it didn’t land as well for me. There’s something particularly funny about Mark’s brand of sarcasm, something about the way he’s primarily just joking around with himself, and with an imaginary reader. Hearing Mitch and Teddy exchange Sorkin-esque, half-inspirational, half-snarky dialogue wasn’t as amusing for me. Besides, the Mars sections don’t feel quite as isolated and dangerous when the NASA perspective is introduced; part of me longed for a Gravity– or All is Lost-esque story limited to one guy alone trying to survive in a foreign environment.

As the book went on, though, it became clear that those sections back on Earth were very necessary, both to build the stakes – wow, everyone on Earth is watching, and if anyone screws up, this will be a colossal waste of time, money, and human life – and to offer a break from the dense scientific material of Mark’s survival tactics. Weir is careful to keep the book fairly accessible, and based on the audience reaction, he certainly succeeded at appealing to the public. But at times it did become slightly difficult to visualize everything that was happening, and that made some chapters from Mark’s perspective a little slower. I wouldn’t classify the book as a ‘slog’ at all; that’s too far. But there were a couple times when I was ready for a break from the science.

That said, most of the science worked great. I have no idea if anything in this book is accurate – I imagine it’s at least partly based in truth based on Weir’s background and the way he made sure to meticulously acknowledge potential plot holes at every turn – but the point is that it’s convincing enough that you completely believe everything in the story could really happen. There’s something that’s just so fun about watching Mark try to finagle his way out of certain issues; there’s something irresistible to me about survival stories focused on a character who takes a breath, concentrates really hard, and figures out an ingenious way to get out of a seemingly unsolvable problem. There’s enough complex science in the story that you can’t really guess what the solution is going to be, but it’s based enough in fact and makes enough sense that the solutions never really feel like deus ex machina.

All in all, just a fun hard sci-fi thriller that manages to avoid cliches by staying focused and minimalist, and not resorting to cheesy sentiment until it’s absolutely necessary.

Leave a Reply

Be the First to Comment!