Well, this is an absolutely outstanding book. I couldn’t put it down, which lead to me going to sleep well past 3 am every night of my work trip to New York, the return flight from which I’m currently on. I’d been recommended Andy Weir’s The Martian by several friends (and even a few coworkers,) and the synopsis piqued my interest. An astronaut is thought dead, and left on Mars to fend for himself. Talk about an elevator pitch, right?
Anyway, the thing that impressed me so much about The Martian was its seamless interweaving of character and plot with hard science fiction the like of which I’d never read before. For those of you unfamiliar with the term “hard science fiction,” it’s scifi that spends its time grounding as much as possible in scientific fact, and in explaining the science behind advanced technology. In the case of The Martian, we have a main conflict of character versus nature, where the character is sympathetic, proactive, and extraordinarily capable. According to what little learning I’ve retained from the Writing Excuses podcast, it’s difficult to build a compelling story about a “superman” character, but I think that, in the case of The Martian, the adversary is threatening to such a degree that the reader is able to put their full support at the feet of Mark Watney (the protagonist) as he records his struggles–practical and emotional–to survive against incredible odds.
Watney’s journal/activity log (the presentation of the bulk of the book) reads like a cross between a science blog and the ramblings of a stoic, contrary, and occasionally bitter man. His cynicism and intellect contribute to a read that is very funny, possibly educational, and completely engrossing. His struggles are manifold and decidedly human, despite the sometimes mechanical nature of their presentations. In the face of utter solitude on a harsh, unforgiving and entirely foreign world would leave just about anyone with no hope, Watney continuously buckles down, does the math, and reaches the next plateau.
Weir does an excellent job of balancing the first-person/diary storytelling with the inclusion of sections in third-person following the activities of members of NASA/JPL and others as they follow Watney’s progress and do their best to communicate with him. In addition, these breaks strengthen the impact of Watney’s solitude on the reader. It’s incredibly difficult to imagine the complete solitude of being the only person on a planet that cannot sustain life, much the same as it is functionally impossible to really grasp interstellar distances. It’s just too big. But we get a glimpse, in The Martian, of that enormity, and of that solitude, in a funny, thought-provoking, and gripping fashion, in addition to being treated to the best work of hard Science Fiction I’ve read since Bradbury. I can’t recommend this one enough. 5/5