I’m sort of sorry that I set up the title style as [Review: Title] because this would have been the perfect opportunity to have a smart-arse headline like; ‘ a story that’s out of this world!’ And it would be appropriate, because the hero of this novel, the titular Martian, is a massive smart-arse. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.
Mark Watney is a sort of near-future Robinson Crusoe. A member of a Mars exploratory mission stranded on the red planet when an accident leads his fellow astronauts to evacuate leaving him for dead. Only he isn’t dead, merely wounded and wakes up to find himself the sole resident of Mars. And, like Crusoe, he’s been left with just enough skills and equipment to make survival a tantalising possibility.
It’s a high-concept premise and it lives or dies on two points really.
- How much you enjoy lots of detailed technical information about how to survive if you’re stranded on Mars. This is a huge similarity to Defoe’s novel, which often reads like a B & Q How To guide, although it put me more in mind of a Crichton novel like Jurassic Park.
- How much you like and emotionally invest in Mark Watney as a character, because for large segments of the book he’s all you’ve got.
I think that the technical detail is the novel’s great strength. I’ve no idea if any of it is true and I don’t care. Weir has the skill that Crichton had for making incredible science fiction sound like plausible science fact. By about halfway through I found myself thinking ‘yeah, that sounds reasonable’ as Watney pimped a Mars rover using tin foil and duct tape. I’ve since discovered that Weir is a bit of a genius and much of the science is sound.
Watney is more anti-hero than hero. He’s not a perfect, chiselled all-American boy fighting against the odds, he’s a sarcastic, rude, annoying man who scrapes by each day with a mixture of cleverness, street-smarts and sheer pigheadedness. And that’s why I like him. He’s real and relatable, if not always likeable. It will be interesting to see how Matt Damon’s Watney turns out when The Martian film is released in November.
Unfortunately Watney is by far and away the best drawn character, with the rest ranging from pretty well-drawn and amusing (Kapoor) to lazy cliche (Annie Montrose). This book is all about the technical detail and sadly the supporting characters suffer, but I think the science and Watney carry it. I didn’t realise how gripped I was until I found myself parked up outside the house unable to stop listening until I heard the end of the audiobook.
In spite of its futuristic subject matter, The Martian is actually a comfortingly old-fashioned adventure story. Interesting and enjoyable, but would for me have benefited from beefing up the supporting cast and somebody sticking a red line through the sentimental final paragraph.