We all have our dreams and desires…. or we all had them. How sad!
Andy Weir, at least, did something with his. Fascinated by space exploration from an early age, “like most kids growing up [he] wanted to be an astronaut. Instead, he wrote a book—The Martian—which he self published on Amazon in 2012.”
By all accounts, it went down very well, in the wake of which overwhelmingly positive and in all probability profitable response, an assortment of proper publishers came a-calling. The result is a novel with problematic priorities that begs for the suggestions of a more determined editor. That it is a gripping and largely satisfying text nevertheless speaks to how marvellous The Martian might have been.
The book is about no more and no less than a man left to die on Mars. Potty-mouthed botanist Mark Watney is far from the first fellow to travel to the red planet—as a crewmember of Ares 3 he’s the fourteenth, in fact, to set foot on its soil—but he’s certainly the first man to be stranded there, abandoned there. A series of unfortunate events just “six days into what should be the greatest two months of [his] life” leave our hero alone in the absolute dark of the stars, and struggling to survive.
After a critical equipment failure and the evident death of one of their number, the other astronauts of Ares 3 have no choice but to hightail it home, unaware that Mark is still alive… however he won’t be for long if Mars has its uncaring way. All our man has is two rovers, a prefab hab and a small container of potatoes, plus the promise of Ares 4’s arrival in four years or so—assuming the tragedy of his apparent passing hasn’t completely derailed NASA’s provisional plans for the program.
He doesn’t, however, have enough food to last him a single Martian year, far less four, and his existence, in the interim, is entirely dependent on disposable equipment: air regulators and water reclaimers meant to function for a few months at most. He has no conceivable way of communicating with anyone either, and even if he had, help is an impossibly long way away. Mark Watney is on his lonesome, ladies and gentlemen, and he has his work cut out, no doubt.
First things first: food—by way of which the author shows us what a resourceful so-and-so his man on Mars is, because within a week of the accident, Mark is planning a farm. He composts his own waste products and mixes the stuff that’s been stinking out his hab with ever more massive amounts of Martian soil, hoping against hope to breed bacteria at speed. Into this interstellar slurry he plants his remaining potatoes. Food shortage: sorted! Sort of…
If Mark has the slightest chance of living through this, he’ll have to solve any number of other problems as and when they arise, every one of which could kill him. This, then, is a survival narrative in the mode of The Explorer, albeit interspersed with touches of The Truman Show from the midpoint on; when satellite imagery finally catches our man puttering about the red planet, the folks at home follow along as if his increasingly desperate struggle to stay alive is some high-concept reality television trifle.
Narratively, The Martian is—despite its necessarily stationary nature—well paced and decently diverse, but I’m afraid the tale does become tiresome from time to time. Weir has clearly done some serious research: a good thing, to be sure, if it weren’t for the way he incorporates his homework; that is to say, far too much of it is on display, most notably in the way Mark describes his days—days spent brainstorming and problem-solving, primarily—the end result of which is a plot bogged down in often tedious technical detail.
Weir’s hero, meanwhile, is a easy to like, but hard to really believe in. One might argue that someone in his situation has no time for measly feelings, but Mark is practical to the point of distraction. The fact that he’s been abandoned on a planet millions of miles from life of any kind sits easily with him, it seems. He hardly spares a thought about all that he’s lost or left behind; instead, he’s content to immerse himself instead in disco music and 70s TV series salvaged from another crewmember’s computer. And when there is the possibility of self-reflection, he simply dismisses it:
It was dead quiet. It was a creepy kind of quiet that’s hard to describe. I’ve been away from the noises of the Hab before, but always in a rove or an EVA suit, both of which have noisy machinery of their own.
But now there was nothing. I never realised how utterly silent Mars is. It’s a desert world with practically no atmosphere to convey sound. I could hear my own heartbeat.
Anyway, enough waxing philosophical.
Mark isn’t a complete wash as The Martian’s main character, however. After all, “he’s a good-natured man,” as the psychologist who worked with the Ares 3 team argues on The Mark Watney Report:
Usually cheerful, with a great sense of humour. He’s quick with a joke. In the months leading up to launch, the crew was put through a gruelling training schedule. They all showed signs of stress and moodiness. Mark was no exception, but the way he showed it was to crack more jokes and get everyone laughing.
And indeed he does. I for one laughed an awful lot reading this debut—never mind how mundane much of it is when the extraordinary was within Weir’s reach—because Mark’s wry wit works, mostly if not wholly, to counterbalance the emotional coldness of his character.
Even with its issues, I found The Martian a hard book to put down; I’d have finished it in a single sitting if real life hadn’t intervened. Almost, but not quite, a proper stonker of a novel.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.