Review: The Martian

the_martian_coverI need to reread the end of Andy Weir’s The Martian. It kept me up late on a work night. Around 1:00am, I decided to start skimming or else I’d risk falling asleep at work. The timer on my Kindle said there was approximately 45 minutes remaining and I hesitated. The train portion of my commute is roughly 45 minutes so I thought: Perfect. I can finish on the train now. Then I thought: I can’t wait until I’m on the train. What if I can’t read then? Sometimes Metro is too packed to hold a Kindle. This book could not wait.

The Martian is primarily given in first-person narration and long segments are presented as Mark Watney’s log book to chronicle his time on Mars. His mission was scrubbed after a fierce windstorm blew up. He was injured in the storm, but his crew believed he was dead and left without him. Mark isn’t bitter about this; he knows his crew had good reason to think he’d died and remains cautiously hopeful. If he can survive the next four years, he can catch a ride home with the next Ares mission.

Fortunately, Mark is a botanist and engineer. He was sent with a small amount of bacteria-rich dirt from Earth and seeds to test whether anything can be grown. NASA also sent whole potatoes for the crew to prepare themselves a real Thanksgiving dinner. Alone, Mark chops and plants these potatoes, building a little farm inside his habitat. I know some reviewers disliked the longer, technical passages, but these sections were my favorite. I loved seeing how his mind worked to solve a growing list of problems: how to find increased surface area for his potato farm, how to increase his supply of dirt, how to maximize his potatoes, how to make water, oxygen, and CO2, on and on. Nothing on Mars is simple or easy.

The technical passages are also necessary to bolster the occasional dumbed-down portions. Some lines are written in such a way as to both insult the reader and lower the presumed intelligence of the narrator:

I stumbled up the hill toward the Hab. As I crested the rise, I saw something that made me very happy and something that made me very sad: The Hab was inact (yay!) and the MAV was gone (boo!). (6)

What an awful use of parentheticals! It’s like he forgot that he already explained the functions of the Hab and MAV and doesn’t trust the reader to sort out the implications. It wasn’t until he started up with the math/chemistry/farm talk that I felt comfortable taking him seriously. It’s a real skill to make chemistry understandable to a layman. Mark explains his math without sounding like he’s talking down to the reader by saying things like: I can get x amount of water this way, which is half of what I’ll need… Even if you don’t understand the numbers he’s throwing around, you can still appreciate what they mean for his situation.

Mark is also quite funny:

As usual, I’m working with stuff that was deliberately designed not to burn. But no amount of careful design by NASA can get around a determined arsonist with a tank of pure oxygen. (160)

It’s impossible to not love him a little. He’s endlessly clever and inventive. He remains in good spirits, even when it doesn’t make sense for him to be. He could have had many sad-sack, hopeless moments without risk of becoming a Debbie Downer. The seriousness of the situation and his natural humor buy him a lot of reader patience, but it’s just not a depressing sort of book. It’s about discovery and the inherent excitement of space travel:

Everywhere I go, I’m the first. Step outside the rover? First guy ever to be there! Climb a hill? First guy to climb that hill! Kick a rock? That rock hasn’t moved in a million years! (99)

Overall: 4.5 I wanted the end to be more… Also, there are a couple weird sections that skip to an outside perspective, like that of a camera, and some of these work better than others. The scenes with Mark on Mars are the best; the rest feel like their dialog has been pulled from every sci-fi movie ever.

Translation: READ IT. Start it early though. Me and the husband were both up til 1:30 on a work/school night and the next day was rough.