The Martian is the first science-fiction book I’ve read which successfully weaves together hard sci-fi (where science and technology are central to the plot) and light/humorous sci-fi (think Hitchhiker’s Guide). Mark Watney, our protagonist, feels very real because of this element. He is fighting for his life, but unwilling to take himself too seriously. For every paragraph of world building Weir writes we have at least one paragraph of character building. Even though Watney has almost no interaction with other human beings throughout this book, we still get a very real glimpse of watching him grow and develop.
I am not good at what my friends call “The Mind Movie”. I struggle to visualize the world that I am experiencing through words in images. It’s something that I didn’t even realize people did until recently. Typically, that disconnect is what drives me away from hard science fiction. That and the fact that I never took to math. I think science is interesting, but you need real math to back it up. It took me a while to read this book because it was described to me as: “The Apollo 13 film if you cut everything out but the science parts.” — Not my cup of tea.
Yes. There is a TON of science. Math! Numbers! Experiments! Successes! Failures!! — But the science aspect was not as intimidating as I thought it might be. Watney is a mechanical engineer/botanist. When he gets stuck, he has a lot to figure out– such as, how will I eat? How can I make these tools last much longer than intended? Where do I get more water from? Etc. etc. etc. We get a lot of details which help the reader feel like this really happened; or at least really could happen in the future.
However, Watney is also a wisecracking, smartass of a character. His witticisms are tossed into all the hard science, making it more digestible. It also helps that we are reading his log posts, which are broken up in an appropriately-blog-like style. In a stream-of-consciousness way, Watney explains what he is doing (SCIENCE!) and why it’s important (HUMANITY!). There were the rare moments when I felt like I was overwhelmed with the science, but then Watney would decide that even he was too science-y. Even he got bored or frustrated. Like, that one time he changed “kilometers per sol” to “pirate-ninja” for the sole purpose of shortening it and making things more interesting. In fact, that’s the reason I found myself highlighting more lines than any book I’d read in a long while.
Watney’s drama is one of the things I enjoyed the most. The fact that he is sarcastic, wise-cracking, and immature helped me connect to him. He mixes science with sass, and I don’t blame him. I’ve heard his character described as whiny. But, honestly, if you were abandoned on Mars with barely a sliver of a chance to survive, what would you do? You’d probably either give up completely or do the exact same thing. Yes, sometimes he starts an entry a bit on the dramatic side, but I know I’d do the same thing.
This is my favorite example:
AUDIO LOG TRANSCRIPT: SOL 119
You know what? Fuck this! Fuck this airlock, fuck that Hab, and fuck this whole planet! Seriously, this is it! I’ve had it! I’ve got a few minutes before I run out of air and I’ll be damned if I spend them playing Mars’s little game. I’m so god damned sick I could puke! All I have to do is sit here. The air will leak out and I’ll die. I’ll be done. No more getting my hopes up, no more self-delusion, and no more problem solving. I’ve fucking had it!
AUDIO LOG TRANSCRIPT: SOL 119(2)
Sigh … okay. I’ve had my tantrum and now I have to figure out how to stay alive. Again. Okay, let’s see what I can do here …
If you think of the premise of this novel my next statement won’t be a surprise: This was an incredibly nerve-wracking book. I found myself constantly holding my breath, sitting up straighter, leaning forward, eyes-bugging-out. I was constantly worried about Watney and his potatoes. However, it wasn’t to the point of Mortal Danger fatigue. None of the danger Watney was in felt forced or unlikely. Watney’s humor alleviated the sense of danger, but never the tension. It was a great balance.
Also, the perspective changes were well done, too. Only one of those changes did I find distracting,
If you like science and you haven’t read this book yet, please do so. Immediately.