Review: The Martian

Book Title: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Format: Hardcover

The Martian, by Andy Weir, is not so much a science fiction novel about an astronaut trapped on Mars as it is a roller coaster of awesome that hauls you from plot twist of happiness to plot twist of despair while you hang on by your fingernails, alternating between holding your breath in shock and doubling over laughing.

The basic premise is this: Mark Watney (the aforementioned astronaut) gets mistaken for dead and left behind by his crew during an aborted mission to Mars. Now Mark must try to get himself rescue before Mars kills him (by suffocation, depressurization, starvation, dehydration, explosion, carbon monoxide poisoning…at times, the list of dangers he faces seems endless).

A book like this is bound to be either chock full of science of completely ludicrous, and there are certainly a few parts where the scientific explanations go on for one or two paragraphs too long. However, most of the technobabble is fairly well restrained, and the narrative never wanders into Weber-like infodumps that leave the reader bored or skimming.

The strongest part of The Martian is the eponymous Watney, who is so genre-savvy and snarky he might have been yanked from a Jim Butcher novel, but who balances bad jokes and sarcasm in the face of danger with a good dose of self-awareness and utter competence at his jobs (botany and engineering, which figure massively into the plot).

While many other science fiction novels gloss over the actual work that goes into surviving in a dangerous situation, The Martian lingers on it and uses it not only to create the atmosphere of the novel and the thrust of the plot, but also to highlight Watney’s capabilities. As much of the story is told though Watney’s personal logs (with the rest a third-person narration that wanders to his fellow astronauts and the crew at NASA), every tedious logistical problem becomes a seemingly insurmountable fight for survival as Watney must grapple with such diverse problems as how to contact NASA with no working communications devices and how to keep from starving to death until he might conceivably be rescued. Although Watney is an incredibly smart and able character, the in-universe explanation of his being trained as a freaking astronaut to Mars lets the reader ignore his handy knowledge, and Weir is careful to never let his protagonist feel like Stephen Hawking; several plot twists, in fact, come about precisely because Watney makes mistakes in procedure or calculation, and sheer dumb luck saves the day on at least a couple of occasions.

Despite one or two moments of science-dumping, The Martian is an awesome, hilarious novel with a snarky yet ridiculously endearing protagonist (just watch for the short scene towards the end where he hugs a piece of machinery), and I strongly recommend it to anyone who isn’t entirely turned off by a bit of science in their fiction.


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