Review of The Martian

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The Martian by Andy Weir

This is a book that needs no introduction from me, since it has now been converted into, as the saying goes, a major motion picture. It is also a book that originally was available for free, chapter by chapter as they appeared on the author’s blog. When it was finished, according to the author in a postscript to the novel, he made it available on Amazon but was unable to give it away for free so charged the minimum amount possible. Interest grew – it is not explained how this took place – and a publisher took an interest, which is how Broadway Books, an imprint of Random House, came to publish the 2014 edition of the book sitting next to me, using the original 2011 text and adding some supplementary material.

The plot has become pretty well known by now: an astronaut is stranded on Mars, after one of the first manned missions to the planet goes wrong. He is believed to be dead and the remaining crew members flee the scene as disaster looms. The presumed dead astronaut subsequently recovers from his whack to the noggin and has very rapidly to come to terms with his situation and then plan first for survival and, in due course, to try to be rescued. The book follows his progress very closely. Most of the chapters take place on Mars and follow the conceit that the astronaut, Mark Watney, is recounting his situation to some kind of journal in a non-specific format (I haven’t seen the film so I don’t know how this is handled there but I guess it is some kind of basic video system with energy requirements that would not affect other calculations). Watney is a combination of mechanical engineer and botanist and this seems to have provided him with all the skills and knowledge necessary to survive. He is, therefore, able to fix the rover, modify the habitat to grow potatoes, use hexadecimal code to communication with earth and a hundred other unlikely abilities. The text describes everything in a flat, scientific manner, dividing tasks into manageable chunks which may be resolved through mathematically precise actions. These are then expertly enacted, although there are various twists and turns along the way. The pleasure to be had from the book is principally from observing Watney solving the problems as they are presented to him and marveling at his unflappable competence. The other chapters, set on earth and describing the various people necessary to organize the rescue attempt, appear somewhat perfunctory as a result. Characterization and dialogue are rarely treated as more than necessary evils in science fiction and there is no exception in this case. The characters function principally to do their job and to take the actions necessary to advance the plot. Readers hoping for more than this will be disappointed. Fortunately, a rapid pace is established from the start and is sustained until the final page.

It is tempting to imagine that the protagonist is a wish fulfilment figure for the author, who at the age of 15 was hired to write computer code and has been a software engineer ever since. Watney is described early in the book as being not just a person with a personality and psychology suitable for the hardships of being an astronaut but a person who actually makes social interactions within groups better and more positive. Yet he actually gives very little evidence for this apart from his attempting witticisms – wisecracks, more accurately – in response to any form of communication. Not only does he not provide anything but the most limited information about his personal life and thoughts but he never at any stage shows any interest in what is happening on his home planet and he appears to have no family or friends at all. As a form of comedy, Watney has access only to 70s television shows and disco music but we learn next to nothing about what he might have preferred or what he thought about anything at all. He seems to have not only no spiritual dimension to his life but also no sense of intellectual curiosity at all. It is possible to imagine that this is because he is obliged to subjugate all of his conscious thought and efforts to the struggle for survival but it is only just possible.

This is, nevertheless, an entertaining tale about how to survive on a hostile planet. Is it believable? I remember some years ago being in a meeting with some statisticians and they were calculating the number of variables and questionnaires and determining, therefore, whether a resultant file would fit on a single floppy disk (those were the days). I thought at the time the world did not work quite so simply and I have the same feeling about The Martian.

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