Every now and then you need a good page-turner to dive into and later come up, gasping for air, realizing that you’ve whittled away hours without notice. Got a cross country plane trip? Going on vacation to the beach? Long wait at the DMV? Going on a trip to Mars?
The Martian, a debut novel by author Andy Weir, will help you get through it.
Remember that scene in the movie Apollo 13, the one where the astronauts are slowly succumbing to CO2 poisoning because their air filter stopped working? Suddenly we see a room of engineers and a large box. As the contents of the box are dumped on the table the lead engineer challenges the group to build a new air filter using only “extra” pieces found in the space capsule. They have “x” number of hours to build a filter and fit a square peg into a round hole. Go!
That’s The Martian. It’s the near future. After a vicious wind storm forces a group of astronauts to abandon their mission on Mars, astronaut (and botanist) Mark Watney, thought dead, is left behind. He now has only 90 days of oxygen and food and the next mission isn’t scheduled to arrive for four years. Go!
I remember when I first read Moby Dick by Herman Melville. It’s a story about Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal quest for the White Whale. I was surprised to learn that 2/3rds of the novel is essentially a history and how-to-book on whaling. When I finished, I felt I knew all I needed to be a whaler. (I really didn’t.) Same goes for The Martian. Though at times it may appear a bit technical, it doesn’t overdo it on the geekiness. Watney is faced with ever increasing challenges and through his knowledge of Science! and Botany! he MacGyvers his way to rescue. Along the way he narrates his struggles, explaining in almost precise detail just how he succeeded.
If I’m every left behind on Mars I want The Martian novel with me. But consider this: of all the people to be left behind on Mars and have any chance of surviving, it could only be Mark Watney. IT. COULD. ONLY. BE. HIM. If NASA sent me to be the first Liberal Arts / Book Blogger / Non-profit fundraiser to land on Mars and I was left behind? Yeah, I’d be dead, but I’d have my trusty copy of The Martian to keep me entertained till my air or food ran out.
What I Didn’t Like About the Novel: The novel is mostly written in the form of Watney’s journal entries. When the action switches over to NASA officials on Earth, the characters are all one dimensional. You really don’t care about them. The names and personalities are interchangeable and it’s clear they are there simply to push the story forward. After a few pages of this I was eagerly awaiting a return to the red planet and Watney’s dilemma. Oh, and one thing bugged me: While trapped on Mars, Watney is reduced to listening or reading his former crew members’ entertainment (Agatha Christie novels, disco and 1970’s sitcoms). So did Watney not pack any entertainment for himself? No books, music or TV? It’s a long trip there; they were scheduled for at least 30 days on the planet. Watney didn’t bring anything? Strange. (OK, I’m nitpicking)
What I Liked About the Novel: Besides being an enjoyable, quick, exhilarating, humorous and compelling read, I like the backstory of the publication. The Martian is yet another example of the current power of self publishing. Hurray for the Internets! Author Weir first published chapters of the novel on his blog. When friends and fans requested a version they could read on their e-readers, he reluctantly put it on Amazon for $0.99. Now it’s a major motion picture starring Matt Damon. So, that happened. The internet and various self-publishing sites are giving rise to new voices in literature, Science Fiction and Fantasy. That’s a good thing.
Conclusion: The Martian is not only for fans of the science fiction genre. It contains just enough technical data to appeal to the geek in all of us, while engaging us with a captivating story and a hero we can root for.
I recommend The Martian. 3 ½ stars out of five.