Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The biggest buzz in international sci-fi book circles at thecv_the_martian moment is The Martian, by Andy Weir: Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Set in the foreseeable future, astronaut Mark Watney is alone on Mars, left behind by crewmates who believe he’s dead, with no way to communicate with Earth and only limited supplies of food, water and oxygen.

Cue a fast-paced, warm-hearted, sci-fi action movie romp. Critics have complained that The Martian is too heavy on the technical detail and too light on philosophical meatiness, and these are fair points. There are many entire paragraphs that read like maths exam questions: “Let’s call the volume of the airlock two cubic meters [sic]. The inflated EVA suit probably takes up half of it. So it took five minutes to add 0.2 atmospheres to 1 cubic meter. That’s 285 grams of air (trust me on the math). The air in the tanks is around 1 gram per cubic centimeter, meaning I just lost 285 milliliters.” There is a lot of jargon and elaborate use of acronyms, many of which are confusingly similar (MAV, MMU, MDV, VAL).

Many times I wished for an index, or explanatory notes – often I caught myself skimming over the surface of descriptions of technical high-jinks, watching out for plot points. And the solitary protagonist’s soul-searching is so perfunctory as to be non-existent: “Mankind reaching out to Mars to send people to another planet for the very first time and expand the horizons of humanity blah, blah, blah.”

But the sheer verve and good-natured bounce of the story make up for all that, and more besides. Weir’s lifelong enthusiasm for all things space-geekery shines through every sentence. And if protagonist Mark Watney is a fairly transparent exercise in authorial wish-fulfillment, he is also a genuinely endearing hero we cannot help cheering along.

Weir’s prose is open and confident, and The Martian is excellently plotted, with tense, page-turning pacing – no mean achievement for seasoned authors, let alone a software engineer turned debut novelist. As well as a cornucopia of one-liners (“Hell yeah I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!”), there are also moments of genuine comedy: “[At NASA] Teddy swiveled his chair and looked out to the window to the sky beyond. Night was edging in. ‘What must it be like?’ he pondered. ‘He’s stuck out there. 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?’ He turned back to Venkat. ‘I wonder what he’s thinking right now.’ [On Mars, Mark’s POV] Log entry: Sol 61. How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.”

Overall, then, The Martian takes a decent shot at being that rarest of beasts: ‘hard’ sci-fi that also appeals to the general reader. Despite its faults, I came away completely seduced by its puppy-like charm. I look forward to the inevitable film.

Review by Elizabeth Heritage


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