The Martian, by Andy Weir, a science fact heavy science fiction novel about an astronaut abandoned on Mars, started life as a self-published freebie available on the Internet. In October it will debut as a science fiction blockbuster film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. In between, one of those unlikely ‘self-published book becomes bestselling novel’ things happened that had everyone talking.
The Martian of the title is Mark Watney, an American astronaut blown away from his crewmates in the middle of a dust storm, and left for dead when said storm forces an evacuation of the planet. With no means of communicating with Earth (the main antenna having been destroyed in the storm) Watney has to figure out how to survive alone on Mars until the next mission arrives four years later. Fortunately for him, his skill sets include both botany and engineering, which come in handy for growing food and re-purposing equipment.
The Martian is a very technical novel, providing a detailed look at the challenges Watney faces on Mars and the solutions he comes up with to survive. The character has little depth beyond his wisecrackery and technical skills, and seems to operate in two modes, “Holy shit, I’m going to die” and “No, wait, I’ve thought of a brilliant solution.” I imagine the mental toll of living alone a year and half under the constant threat of death would be enormous on a real person, but the novel never really explores much more than the technical challenges of Watney’s survival.
The novel starts off with a strong first person narrative, in the form of Watney’s mission logs, but eventually resorts to a series of third person narratives for scenes involving NASA personnel and Watney’s crewmates. Some of these sections feel random and haphazardly placed. None of the other characters are more than paper-thin. Watney is the best-developed character in the book, and that is not saying much. There is no doubt that many of the obstacles to survival and rescue faced by Watney (and those at NASA trying to get him home) could have proved fatal, but by the end of the book it seemed like the author was just throwing in extra difficulties for the hell of it. Still, this mashup of Apollo 13 and Castaway is both compelling and entertaining and should make a hell of a movie. B+