The Martian Deserves Everything It’s Getting, Matt Damon Included

29 Jan

The_Martian_2014The most surprising thing about The Martian isn’t that it’s going to be a major Ridley Scott film starring [typecast?] astronaut Matt Damon in the leading role. Or that the novel’s author, Andy Weir, wrote some 350 page of extremely technical aerospace detail with little more than Google research. Or that he published the book himself through Amazon, where it is currently (having since been picked up by a major publisher) tooling around in the Top 10 science-fiction list. No, what’s most surprising about The Martian is that in spite of its Cinderella-story creation and enthusiastic technicality, in spite of its corny humor and disorganized pacing, in spite of the fact that it’s primarily narrated by one person who spends all his time completely alone, this is one of the most unique and excellent novels I’ve read in recent memory.

“The Martian,” in this case, is Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut (slash botanist slash engineer) who gets stranded on the red planet when a dust storm-related accident separates him from his crew, who assume him dead and have to get the hell out of Dodge (i.e. abort their mission). When Watney comes to—saved by a fluke congealed blood situation worthy of a reverse Darwin Award—he is left with the daunting task of figuring out how to survive on an uninhabitable planet until his only possible rescue: the next Mars mission, in four years. 

On sheer premise, The Martian is a worst nightmare on par with Sandra Bullock spaceship-hopping her way to survival in 2013’s Gravity. Finding oneself presumed dead while actually stuck very much alive on an empty planet has to be near the top of the “oh crap” list, sort of like being lost at sea multiplied by a billion. Watney’s first log entry on Mars sums things up rather perfectly: “I’m pretty much fucked. That’s my considered opinion. Fucked.”

But his despair soon gives way to a boyish humor—”What do you know? I’m in command [now]”—and an unflappable optimism powered by some combination of survival instinct and scientific method. (Also because curling into a ball and mumbling “shitshitshitshit” for a year would make for a boring, though inarguably understandable, novel.) Resigned to his indefinite tenure on the fourth rock from the sun, Watney immediately sets about addressing what would for most seem insurmountable obstacles:

I have no way to communicate with Hermes [spaceship where the crew is] or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days. If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of these things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

What follows are a series of highly entertaining and extremely wonky logs, as Watney develops plan after plan to address the myriad ways in which he might perish on Mars. Throughout, Weir’s/Watney’s writing is clean and breezy, while still being impossibly detailed when it comes to the specifics of his work. Example:

The regulator uses freeze-separation to sort out the gasses. When it decides there’s too much oxygen, it starts collecting air in a tank and cooling it to 90 kelvin. That makes the oxygen turn to liquid, but leaves the nitrogen (condensation point: 77K) still gaseous. Then it stores the O2. But I can’t get it to do that for hydrogen, because hydrogen needs to be below 21K to turn liquid. And the regulator just can’t get temperatures that low. Dead end.

Trust me though, the science is interesting. And while I feel compelled to note that my praise of Weir’s research comes from a place of having no effing idea whether he got it all right—in a Reddit AMA, he said the aforementioned dust storm wouldn’t have been possible on Mars IRL, and niggling Amazon reviewers suggest The Martian has its fair share of scientific glitches—it honestly doesn’t matter. What Weir has created is a fun accessible piece of fiction that will resonate with all sorts of readers—science-fiction fans or no—so long as they like adventure, nerdery, and unflinching humor in the face of human mortality.

Because most important in this story is Watney himself, a consistently pleasant narrator whose jocular attitude can be surprising considering the number of times he goes to bed without having worked out a solution upon which his life depends. Watney eventually tracks down the crew’s media inventory and spends off hours in the Hab watching reruns of 70s sitcoms and reading Agatha Christie novels. When NASA finally figures out that he is alive—an early turning point in the novel, from which it only gets better and better—an official (on Earth) gravely wonders what the stranded astronaut could be thinking: “He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?”

Subsequently, from Watney:

LOG ENTRY: SOL 61
—————————-
How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.

It’d be fair, or at least not unfair, to say that we’re in the middle of a new space age. Outside of SpaceX and Elon Musk and Lance Bass: Possible Astronaut, the aughts and twenty-teens have brought with them Star Wars and Star Trek revivals, Wall-E, Elysium, Gravity, Interstellar, Prometheus, Ender’s Game, Guardians of the Galaxy, and a highly unnecessary Chronicles of Riddick sequel. The Martian seems in some sense a culmination of this renewed (or perhaps ever-present) intergalactic interest, a comedic Cast Away that’s also improbably concerned with scientific realism. A book that was just begging for a film adaptation. A main character that was just begging for A-list representation. Some 35 years after Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we were ready for a funny science-fiction novel, a complicated and zany space adventure seen through the eyes of someone smart enough to grow food without soil, and silly enough to chat NASA rudimentary boob emoticons. We were ready for Mark Watney.

TITLE: The Martian
————————————
AUTHOR: Andy Weir
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PAGES: 369 (in hardcover)
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ALSO WROTE: The Egg
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SORTA LIKE: Cast Away meets
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FIRST LINE: “I’m pretty much fucked.”

15 Responses to “The Martian Deserves Everything It’s Getting, Matt Damon Included”

  1. Farid January 29, 2015 at 12:57 pm #

    Science, as you said, indeed, is interesting. You write well 🙂 It sort of urged me to read the book.

  2. Keepupwithkayla January 29, 2015 at 1:21 pm #

    I adored The Martian. Excited to have Matt Damon for Watney, should be wonderful!

  3. moosha23 January 29, 2015 at 3:14 pm #

    Yes to this book! It sounds brilliant – a culmination of all sci-fi with humour to boot. What’s not to like? (I need to have this).

  4. Anita C. Miller January 30, 2015 at 10:36 am #

    I enjoyed reading your review. I agree … this is a real “pageturner”. I found myself skipping all the science stuff near the end (I’m ashamed to admit that I was a biology major in college) just to find out how he survives. One of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

  5. Jay E. January 30, 2015 at 12:15 pm #

    The Martian was already on my TBR, this post definitely moved it up a more than a few places!

  6. ineluctable87 January 31, 2015 at 1:48 am #

    Wonder how the movie will be any different from Interstellar which also starred Matt Damon.

    • Kira Bindrim January 31, 2015 at 9:11 am #

      The concept is pretty different, so here’s hoping the only overlap there will be Damon as astronaut.

  7. bho47 January 31, 2015 at 3:17 pm #

    Stoked to read this now – thanks for a solid review!

  8. Lutheranliar February 2, 2015 at 9:33 am #

    If the book is anything as well-written as this review, then it’s a must.
    Thanks again, Kira! (I ordered ‘Bird Box’; was just waiting to finish a not-so-hot-thriller-not-reco’d-by-you to start it.)

  9. Patrick February 11, 2015 at 11:13 am #

    Sounds like a film for me, since I enjoyed Gravity. Also, the book sounds very intriguing. I will keep my eyes open for it, next time I’m near a bookstore.

  10. Lynn Love February 11, 2015 at 12:20 pm #

    I have to say, I haven’t read much sci-fi for a while, but you make The Martian sound amazing. What a great concept and very, very filmable. And though I loved Sandra Bullock whizzing round in space as much as the next movie goer, Gravity was pretty po-faced. It would be great to read/watch some serious sci-fi with a sense of humour- if you catch my drift. Who can resist a book that opens with ‘I’m pretty much fucked’- a first line to rival ‘Reader, I married him’!

  11. Anthony Del Vecchio February 24, 2015 at 11:48 am #

    Fantastic book. One of the best I’ve read in a long time.

  12. Jessica Kim March 17, 2015 at 12:58 pm #

    I’ve made it a goal to read more and I’m so glad to have found your blog. It’s definitely going to keep me inspired. Looking forward to reading more. 🙂

    Jess

  13. c.d. March 19, 2015 at 3:18 pm #

    I enjoyed The Martian! I was reluctant at first when I found out that it’s a book narrated for most of the time by one character—I was sure it would bore me to death. Now I’m glad I picked it up. I wasn’t a big fan of many of the technical details, but I was a big fan of Mark Watney and his humor. I can’t wait to watch the movie.

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