ScienceThrillers.com book review of The Martian by Andy Weir.
(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)
Tech rating (out of 5):
Publication date: Print version, February 2014; Movie, October 2, 2015
Category: science thriller / hard SF
Summary (from the publisher):
Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.
Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.
After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.
Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.
But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?
The geeks win, and I can hardly believe this story’s success.
The Martian is a rare book: a true science-based thriller in which mathematics and physics play a central role in the actual plot. Pages and pages are devoted to (superficial) summaries of complex calculations, whether Watney’s trying to figure his calorie consumption over a two-year period or for reaching an orbit. The math and physics are presumably accurate, as this book originally appeared as an Internet serial and was subjected to the wisdom of the crowd: actual rocket scientists are rumored to have critiqued the author’s efforts.
Lest you be put off by the thought of a math story, I can assure you that the heart of this book isn’t math, it’s ingenuity and creativity. I think what I like best about The Martian is how it celebrates the inherently creative nature of science and math. So few people recognize this!
Our hero, Mark Watney, is the epitome of cool under pressure (or zero pressure, as is the case in the absence of an atmosphere on Mars). Always clever, usually with just the right amount of self-deprecating snark, and always ready to raise a finger at authority when it interferes with what’s right, Watney is a perfect hero for the Google age. His voice, as expressed in the log entry format of much of the book, is definitely a big part of what makes this narrative a winner.
Overall the story is a retelling of Apollo 13 set on Mars. It’s a tribute to smart. While there definitely is tension, the calmness of the hero and somewhat odd pacing make it a remarkably relaxing read for a thriller. I didn’t feel a gradual ramping up of tension to the climax at the end, which is the norm for thrillers. Rather the reader experiences a series of smaller crises and resolutions along the way.
My only criticism is compared to the attention paid to the other sciences in this story, psychology is given short shrift. Watney is indeed remarkable for his emotional stamina under absurdly difficult conditions. But hey, who doesn’t love a strong hero?
I expect the movie version of The Martian will closely follow the book. Much of the limited dialog in the book will probably be taken word for word into the script, as the author did a great job of imitating movie speech. Hollywood will probably change things enough to make the buildup to the final climax a steeper, steadier climb.
But read the book before you go to the theater!