Recommended for fans of astronauts, survival stories
★ ★ ★ ★
“Things didn’t go exactly as planned, but I’m not dead, so it’s a win.“
Mark Watney’s wry evaluation is essentially the summation of his attempts to survive on Mars. After a devastating and unexpected Martian hurricane-force storm wrecks havoc on the Martian crew, NASA calls for an ‘abort mission.’ As Mark is heading to the vehicle that will provide escape from Mars and return the crew to earth, he’s impaled by flying debris, loses consciousness and is presumed dead as the object impaled his suit bio-computer. Ironically, his injury was caused by a piece of antenna that would have enabled him to let his team–or Earth–know he was still alive. What follows is Mark’s log entry of his strategies to survive on Mars and signal Earth that he is still alive.
I tend to avoid most ‘serious’ Hollywood movies because the emotional manipulation is so overt. For similar reasons, I was hesitant to pick up The Martian. A man abandoned on Mars? Cue scenes of astronaut training, sobbing family, distance camera shots of the Earth marble from Mars. But Weir did something interesting, and instead of heading for the maudlin center of a man’s isolation, he focused on the technical problem-solving by an intelligent, clever engineer with a juvenile sense of humor.
I was pleased to find that The Martian worked for me, despite a few story-telling bumps. The overall structure has a couple of rocky (get it?) moments, with jumps in time and place. Although the primary story is taken from Mark’s mission logs, there are scenes centered on NASA as well as Mark’s crew members. One flashback of the crew felt particularly misplaced, but will undoubtedly fit right into the movie version. In terms of language, Mark’s voice is colloquial, and even when he’s talking science and engineering, his problem-solving relatively understandable for the reader. Mark’s skills and necessary solutions draw upon experience in botany, Morse code, computers, plumbing, chemistry, balancing loads, ramp-building–there’s likely something here most people can relate to:
“Problem is (follow me closely here, the science is pretty complicated), if I cut a hole in the Hab, the air won’t stay inside anymore.”
There’s even some science humor sprinkled in among the poop jokes:
“All my brilliant plans foiled by thermodynamics. Damn you, Entropy.”
What really sold me was Mark’s humor, as well as the focus on survival in an unusual environment. There’s a running joke regarding his attempts to entertain himself, only somewhat relieved after rooting through his crewmates’ possessions and discovering data discs filled with 70s memorabilia. Another ongoing gag centers on being the only human on Mars. Instead of despairing, Mark cracks jokes. It felt believable, an almost required personality trait for one of those daredevils we call ‘astronauts,’ and a very adaptive way of coping in small group situations. For some, the lack of overt emotional exploration might disappoint, but it worked well both to off-set the technical aspects, and to avoid the trope-ridden isolation angst. He does let a couple of moments of isolation and frustration shine through, more moving because of how rare they are.
It’s a solid four stars, and clearly headed towards movie status. An enjoyable, quick read instead of the emotional existential tear-jerker I was expecting, with a positive message about humanity. However, when the movie version is finally made, I won’t need to see it–I’ve already seen Castaway and The Terminal. Adding Apollo 13 is unnecessary.