I am very late to the party on this one. Too bad. I haven’t watched the movie, either.
If you have somehow escaped having any knowledge of Andy Weir’s The Martian as well as its film adaptation, a synopsis is very simple: astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars, alone, and must figure out how to survive and somehow get home. That’s it. The premise is about as straightforward as can be. Most of the narrative consists of Watney’s log entries, written in a conversational, down-to-Earth style that’s pleasant and easy to read. There are occasional point-of-view shifts to the terrestrial staff of NASA and JPL, who at first believe he is dead, but upon realizing he’s alive, begin working furiously on plans to rescue him. The crew of the Hermes, who left him behind, also get some focus. There are also few rare instances of third-person narrative for events happening to and around Watney–things that would be difficult or anticlimactic to communicate in log entries.
The book follows familiar patterns and conventions. Watney makes progress, then some of it is snatched away, and he must find a way to recover. Good fortune is reversed, then he perseveres to claw some back. The book is briskly paced–one could finish it easily in a couple hours–and doesn’t present any particular challenges. It’s not demanding or particularly insightful with regard to any human-oriented themes. In The Martian, problem-solving is the star. In that way, it is full of fun exercises for people who enjoy creative problem-solving in an unfamiliar environment. While I didn’t take the time the check Watney’s calculations or the plausibility of his solutions, most of what was presented seemed reasonable enough, and the book did a fair job of setting up the scenario such that Watney didn’t appear to simply be pulling rabbits out of his hat. A lot of attention went into the technical details, and in fact a large share of the book–I’d say at least half, if not more–is devoted to Watney describing and puzzling out various problems he encounters. It’s engaging material even if it’s not all that dramatic.
But the book is not without its limitations. While it is entertaining enough, it is very superficial. Even Watney, who narrates most of the book, has little depth. His motivation is as simple as can be: he wants to live. This works as a universal motive that anyone could identify with, but we rarely learn much about Mark Watney, the man. Occasional details are dropped here and there, but I can’t say that, by the end, I have a great grasp of him as anything more than a resilient, wisecracking, somewhat insecure engineer-botanist-astronaut. Other characters are broadly-drawn types who may hint at deeper motives, but you never get to see them. What I appreciate most in any book is its ability to make me think. In what ways did the book make me question myself, my worldview, the universe around me? The Martian doesn’t care about any of this–there’s little time for contemplation when Watney is just trying to survive. Or is there? As it happens, the protagonist actually does have a lot of down time. There are days when he has nothing to do but wait, or rest. He spends this time listening to music, reading books, watching old TV shows. As a character, he doesn’t seem to exist below the surface level of what pop culture artifacts he is familiar with. I found it a bit disappointing that, with all this time to reflect, he doesn’t engage with anything more significant. Of course, he notes with some pride all the firsts he is accomplishing on Mars, by virtue of being the first person to stay there for an extended length of time. There is never anything deeper than this, though. Without spoiling anything, the ending offers trite aphorisms about human behavior–I suppose this is in line with the rest of the book, as far as that goes.
All this is to say that I wish The Martian had dared a little more, tried to offer more than a simple thrill ride with thin characterizations. As written, it was tailor-made for film adaptation: it’s paced like a sci-fi action movie, with the twists and turns and popcorn value one would expect from such a beast. I wish it had tried to ask more of me, as a reader.
Overall, this review probably sounds overly critical. It is not intended to suggest that The Martian is a bad novel. It depends on what one is looking for. I’m glad to have read it, to know what all the fuss is about. I’ll probably watch the film at some point. I don’t know what expectations I had going in, but I know that, by the end, I wanted more out of it. I don’t mean a longer story or more characters, but more than just technical examinations of the situation at hand, and more than blockbuster movie dialogue.
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