Andy Weir’s first novel concerns the plight of Mark Watney; one of 6 astronauts on a mission to Mars. Within 2 pages he is abandoned and thought dead by his crewmates. All he has are the tools left over from the mission. What follows is a day-by-day journal of his survival for 549 days on the red planet.
While epistolary forms can be used to reveal the inner world of narrators, Weir is interested in mundane realities of Mark discussing the math involved in his survival and his lack of water and food.
The form is slowly opened up with sections taking place on earth. These focus on NASA reeling from the mission, media firestorms and press conferences. Here Weir delves into cultural commentary; one of the better ideas is the creation of a Mark Watney TV show devoted to his plight. These sections are distinct, they move into third person. This shift is welcome, keeping the detailed passages set on Mars from becoming boring.
The book resembles the movies Gravity and All is Lost. Both deal with a person pushed to personal limits in an unlivable situation, though at no point in either did it really feel like the main character would die. Neither of the movies is ultimately about defeat. They are about resilience, ingenuity, survival.
Mark’s story is also one of surviving. No matter what is tossed his way the level of tension and the reactions of the character support the feeling that we can get through this.
Call it PTSD from a decade of war and economic collapse. Call it viral hope. But culturally we are in a moment where stories of survival feel important. It doesn’t make Weir’s book less interesting, but it certainly makes it feel more about the journey than the outcome. This may or may not be a weakness for some readers. At times it feels like the right tone. But there are moments where Mark seems too irreverent and naïve.
This is Weir’s first novel. He is a scientist and it shows. The prose is sparse, technical, very grounded in reality. You trust he has the physics of a rover rolling into a ditch on Mars correct. We need the information about growing potatoes and condensing water. Without those details the book would feel less like scientists reacting to things and more like an author writing about scientists. They probably don’t need to be brought up more than once though.
The Martian is good. It zooms by, and is highly entertaining. There are some moments where Weir gets bogged down in detail, but these are easily forgiven from a first novel. The book feels just within the realm of possibility and that fills in a lot of the issues. It’s more then speculative. It’s premonitory. Sending people to other planets is a problem we will one day have to face.
Michael J. Wilson reviews for Isotropic Fiction and Publishers Weekly. More about him can be found at Gnash Nosh