Sunday, July 26, 2015

REVIEW: The Martian by Andy Weir

Star Rating: ***** 5/5



The Martian by Andy Weir
Genre: Science Fiction
Subgenre: Hard scifi
Review by Silicon.
Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he's sure he'll be the first person to die there. After a dust storm nearly kills him & forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded & completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—& even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive. Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to kill him first. But Mark isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—& a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?


The plot of The Martian is simultaneously so simple and so unique that I wonder why it hasn't been done a thousand times before. It's one of those situations that makes you think "DUH--why didn't I think of that?"

Mark Watney wakes up alone on the surface of Mars, with no companions and only a jumble of forgotten and abandoned equipment to work with. His fellow astronauts, believing him dead, have fled the planet in the only escape vehicle available. Now, bereft of any communication with Earth or chance of assistance, Mark must find a way to survive on Mars--alone--until someone notices he's still alive.

This could have become boring very fast. This could have become unbelievable even faster. It could have been simple deus ex machina. But what really makes the book incredible is that it is hard scifi. Incredibly hard scifi. Many scifi authors use handwaving to get out of the difficult mechanical realities of space travel--Weir uses these difficulties to create the plot. Every step of the way, Mark is facing believable engineering obstacles in his quest to stay alive. Every time, he uses ingenuity and knowledge to deal with these seemingly impossible difficulties. If you're like me, watching Watney THINK and show you every step of the way WHY his solution may work, give you the justification, give you the MATH, makes this a unique and thrilling book.

This is a high-tension story with periods of hopefulness and success. It definitely feels like a race against time.

Many people think of engineering like following a manual--where's the interest in that? This book puts the true spirit of engineering back into engineering--the ability to invent and use things in ways unimagined by the creators--to go off the books and build things from whatever resources you have.

Things are constantly going wrong for Watney--human error, limitations of materials, the nature of Mars itself. There's tension the whole time--you feel the impossibility of the situation every time Watney does. He's no genius, but he's forced into a situation where he has to perform at his best, just to stay alive.

The story also switches back to the control center back on Earth. You get to watch NASA operate and executives interact, and there's real tension there too. I won't give spoilers, but you watch the drama unfold from BOTH sides--how a crisis can make a varied group of people, not all of them friendly, suddenly work together.

Caveat, however: If you have 0 interest in engineering, this is not the book for you. I couldn't get enough of Watney's careful schemes to work around the latest equipment failure, but if you're looking for a human conflict-centered book, it's not this one. This is VERY man vs nature.


Like any book that focuses on a single character in isolation, a LOT depends on how well that character is realized. Fortunately, Watney is both likable and very human. He's not some kind of engineering god, and he knows that. He's not even the most important person on the Mars mission. But he's self-reliant, inventive, a joker, and relentlessly forward-thinking. He has moments of utter despair (illustrated by a stream of colorful profanities--like I said, very human), but he gets up off his feet and goes to fix those problems.

I would have expected a bit more introspective conflict--certainly Watney is a good deal more optimistic than I'd ever have been in that situation--but the book's focus is very much a man vs nature, not man vs himself. Which I also appreciated--Watney never angsts. He gets up and does shit. 

The other characters, such as the headquarters back on Earth, and Watney's crewmates, are also written very realistically, and without flair. The reactions--especially that of Watney's crewmates--to shocking, and disturbing news is very realistic. I LOVED the way that everything came together in the final drama--it's definitely the most emotional part of the book, but it doesn't sacrifice that dispassionate mental ingenuity that the entire book is built on.

I loved that the characters were varied and different--no clones here. Everyone, no matter how briefly they were on stage, was a character. The minimal character sketches--mainly shown through actions, and reactions--were well done and gave you a sense of the person while still focusing on what they were doing.

My favorite characters were Watney (of course!) and his former crewmates, whose willingness to go against The Rules at considerable risk to themselves made them heroic.

This book doesn't spend too long on characterization but it's there, quietly informing the decisions of the characters. Understated, and well done.


Was it unique? Was it relevant? Well-portrayed? Was it interesting?

Mars! Mars as a fully realized alien planet, a world well-studied yet fraught with difficulties. Let me repeat that this book is VERY. Hard. Scifi. It felt extremely well-researched and believable, which really made the conflicts of the book feel real. We can trust the author on the setting and technology, which is a MUST for immersion into scifi that is relatively close to our time.

The Martian is set in the future, but it's not a FAR future. Space missions have been to Mars before but we haven't fully explored it--it feels like our current knowledge of the Moon, almost. The technology, while it is advanced, is still close enough to current Earth technology that it doesn't feel like it's being made up. It's perfectly understandable to anyone who takes an interest in tech, and is explained well enough by Watney that few readers should feel lost. While being a novel focusing on engineering-based solutions to conflict, it doesn't drown you in tech-speak like many books do when they're trying to impress you.

I loved learning the details of the space missions and of Mars itself.

Writing Style

The Martian has several POVs, the main one being Watney's own journal. Yes, this is a diary-format book. YES, IT'S SUCCESSFUL.

The diary format means that we learn about Watney's successes and failures after the fact--but it loses none of the excitement and tension for this. It allows the author to keep the pacing up--a convenient way of skipping over boring and tedious realities of building up rovers, while still making us feel like we're experiencing everything with Watney. The best part of the diary format is, of course, watching Watney think out loud--the figuring out of the solution is always the most exciting part.

The other POVs are fairly standard third-limited from a variety of executives, programmers, workers, and policy makers back on Earth, and the POVs of Watney's crewmates on their space station.

The writing style is very understated, I would say--the most emotion comes from the reactions of people, not their descriptions. And Watney's colorful entries, of course.

The writing style was very effective for the novel.

Other Considerations

In a tech-based novel like this, it's very easy to make everything a "guy's-world" and only have token diversity and representation. It's exceedingly common for this to happen in similar hard scifi. I was expecting it, and resigned to finding only one or two very minor female characters, to say nothing of diversity.

However, The Martian pleasantly surprised me with a VARIETY of diverse characters that made the book seem perfectly REAL. Here was no artificially white male tech world! Watney's crew is splendidly diverse, with people of multiple nationalities and ethnicities at coming together to complete a historic Mars mission--as it would be. The crew leader is a woman, as is the programmer which I thought was an excellent touch (whether or not it was intended to make a point, I felt enormously satisfied that it didn't conform to the usual All-Male Programmer trope that is so painfully common even in tech novels that purport a little more gender diversity). The control back on Earth has high ethnic and gender diversity as well. And best of all, it's all done with no fuss. No one freaks out about a woman astrophysicist, a woman Space Mission crew leader. There's mutual respect among the ethnically diverse groups shown--no cheap shots or unfunny jokes. It just is. Which is the best way to have a diverse cast.

In Personal Bias news, this was one of the lowest-romance books, highest-plot-focus books I've read ever--hurray! Human drama exists but the REAL problem is the Mars situation--again, hurray! No, I'm not saying everyone gets along perfectly For The Love of Engineering--the inter-department and interpersonal conflict expected certainly exists and causes problems (and it's not totally devoid of romance), but it's not the main conflict. It's not the main focus. You know how all those medical drama shows end up talking more about relationships than they do about diagnoses--THIS IS NOT THAT KIND OF STORY. 


Actually, I haven't read any book like The Martian.

Do you like abandoned-on-a-deserted-island stories?

Do you like high tension and race-against-time plots?

Do you actually care about the nitty-gritty of tech problems and solutions?

Read this book.


Final Remarks

You guys should be proud of me for not incoherently flailing during this entire review. If it's not obvious yet, know that I REALLY LOVED THIS BOOK. SO MUCH. It's one of those rare books that caters to the scientifically-minded without being dry and niche-y. It's accessible yet doesn't dumb down everything. It is the best hard scifi I've read so far.


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