Book Review: The Martian, by Andy Weir

Posted Saturday, September 26th, 2015 at 1:28 pm

In something of a departure from my previous themes of web/software development and political/cultural issues in tech, I’m doing a book review. Given that it’s The Martian, it is something that that’s likely of interest to geeks… but as time goes on, I may branch out even more.

What I’m saying is, this coyote’s tracks are likely to start wandering from the territory they’ve previously covered. Coyotes do that.

It’s funny how long it can take us to get around to doing things. I’ve had a to-do item in my phone since December of 2013 that I should find and read Andy Weir’s The Martian — a friend with good taste recommended it to me then. I’ve had the actual, physical book sitting around my apartment for something like six to eight months now. And yet, it’s only the imminent release of the movie, plus the fact that I’ll be attending a sci-fi con next weekend and I want to be able to converse about the thing, that’s finally gotten me off my ass to crack the thing open.

The more fool me. I should’ve read this thing ages ago! It’s just plain awesome.

It’s been described as “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” and as “Cast Away on Mars”, and, not having seen or read either of those, I suspect those descriptions are good, as far as they go. And xkcd’s Randall Munroe says it’s for people who wish all of Apollo 13 had been more of the scene where the engineers have to figure out how to connect the two incompatible air filters. Which is funny as hell, but sells the book short.

Yes, this thing is rock-solid, hard SF, in the vein of the scene in Have Space Suit, Will Travel where the protagonist does time/​distance/​acceleration calculations to figure out that his captors have probably taken him to Pluto (and he just happens to have memorized the orbital distances of all the planets[1]). Yes, there are numbers, there are chemical elements and compounds, and there are calculations of how many liters of hydrogen you can extract from such-and-so many liters of hydrazine. Other parts hinge on just how many calories per kilogram you can get from potatoes, and how many square meters of space it takes to grow them.

But despite all that science, this book did not garner its considerable acclaim by appealing to a narrow, sci-fi-nerds-only audience. The bedrock of the book is science, but the theme is that of human ingenuity triumphing over adversity. Its heart is about a whole bunch of people, all working together for a common goal, even when, at times, they can’t contact each other.

And, to that end, it performs some characterization. Unlike the works of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke, whose “characters” are basically chess pieces who move around as the plot requires, Weir’s characters each have some personality — and in many cases, that informs their choices and actions. Okay, none of them are drawn very deeply; they’re not about to unseat Jay Gatsby or Holly Golightly in the “critically-acclaimed, classic characters” department. But they beat the heck out of Powell and Donovan (the interchangeable troubleshooters of I, Robot) or any of the eminently forgettable persons found in Rendezvous With Rama.

Foremost among them is the titular castaway, Mark Watney. Since most of the book is told in Watney’s log entries, his voice and manner are a major part of the book. He’s got a brash and irreverent style — it’s even lampshaded at one point, when the mission psychologist tells newscasters that Watney’s personality is outgoing, humorous, and resilient. Watney’s breezy storytelling style, combined with the fast rhythm of short log entries, propels the book along at a brisk pace that urges the reader forward. This is why so many critics have said it’s an addictive page-turner, and you should make sure to have some free time before you pick it up.

Another nice aspect of Watney’s narration is that he can sum things up after a long chunk of science-bombing. Math-phobes actually don’t have to fear this book; when he starts saying things like “To be viable, soil needs 40 liters of water per cubic meter. My overall plan calls for 9.2 cubic meters of soil…”, you can just skip ahead to the end of the paragraph, looking for a summation. Don’t find one there? Keep bouncing to paragraph-ends until you hit something like “About two-thirds of the [Martian base’s] floor,” which lets you picture, visually, how much dirt he’s going to have to throw around and then you can ignore the numbers.

But really, long chunks of math are surprisingly few and far between! When I sat down to write this review, I had to do some hunting to find more than one or two sentences full without a bunch of more entertaining description wrapped around them. Weir did a surprisingly slick job of breaking up the math with Watney’s more colorful and humorous observations on the situation (starting with the novel’s first three paragraphs: “I’m pretty much fucked. / That’s my considered opinion. / Fucked.”).

But Watney’s just the main character, not the only one who’s given some personality. We also learn about Commander Lewis, pilot Martinez, and the other members of the doomed mission. We learn about them from their actions and the choices they make; Weir has learned to show instead of telling. And we see the differences in style between NASA Administrator Sanders and Flight Director Mitch Henderson, and the poor socialization of astrodynamicist Rich Purnell (one of those stereotypes that exists for a reason).

All this is shown outside Watney’s log entries — Weir makes the very good choice to use the log entries as the main mode of storytelling, but not the sole mode. He doesn’t let it restrict him; when there’s a reason to jump out into a third-person semi-omniscient view and show us what’s happening back on Earth, he does so without hesitation. And that also provides a break in the rhythm of the log entries, giving a breath of narrative fresh air every so often.

So, between tight plotting, decent characterization, a very realistic setting, and a classic theme, this novel hits the four main points needed to make a story not just good, but very good or even great. But there’s a fifth aspect that I couldn’t help but notice:

This thing is unrelentingly geeky.

I mean, aside from the fact that it’s hard SF, this book makes no apologies for requiring that the reader know at least a little bit of basic science to comprehend what’s going on. It assumes you know that water is made of hydrogen and oxygen, that you can electrolyze it to split the two up, and that the result will be incredibly flammable.

But beyond even that, there are references that make it clear that this book is by, and for, the kinds of utter space nerds who watched From the Earth to the Moon. Things like having the Mars-mission astronauts describe someone as “a steely-eyed missile man“, or Watney referencing the tendency of Apollo astronauts to slam down whiskey sours and drive Corvettes. It slides under most people’s radar, but the true intended audience goes, “One of us! One of us!” It’s heartwarming.

I’m not sure how they’re going to make a mass-market movie out of this thing. How much explanation can they throw in without bogging the whole thing down in tons of exposition? In an America where over 1 in 4 people can’t tell that a light-year is a unit of distance, or that radio waves are how cellphones transmit and receive phone calls — on a multiple-choice test, yet! — how will anyone understand what’s going on without such explanations?

Or maybe, just maybe, the studio decided they don’t need to make this a mass-market movie? Maybe they’ve realized that, no matter how much explanation they put in, there are lots of people who will never want to see this movie, and that’s okay — they can aim this one at science geeks, the way they aim things like the Harold and Kumar movies at stoners, or Transformers movies at males under 25.

And if they do that, then they can go as geeky as they want to. They can Science the shit out of it. I hope they do.

In the meantime, I give this book four stars (on a zero-to-four scale), and I can’t wait to see the movie.

[1] When Heinlein was writing, back in 1958, Pluto was still considered a planet. ↑↑

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