Clearly Andy Weir started researching and writing his book well in advance but he could have hardly timed the publication of his first novel The Martian better, coming as it did in the wake of the enormously successful 2013 film Gravity starring Sandra Bullock. That movie shares this book’s overriding theme of one person struggling to survive against the odds in space when disaster strikes on what should otherwise be a ‘routine’ mission – although unfortunately, real life disaster as well as those in fiction remind us that space travel is a dangerous business and never as routine as we like to think it is.
While Gravity is set in orbit around the Earth, The Martian is located considerably further afield – and the title has probably already let slip the fact that it is set on the surface of Mars, sometime in the near future when such manned missions prove viable. An emergency mission abort and evacuation during a fierce dust storm results in one of the six astronauts being killed and left behind – only, it subsequently turns out that he’s not actually dead after all. It’s far too late for his crew mates to be able to turn around and come get him even if they knew he was still alive, so Mark Watney has to survive on his own as best he can with the woefully insufficient and inadequate equipment and provisions he’s been left with. Those were meant to last a month; now he needs to find some way to stay alive for two years.
The resulting story is the same sort of astounding out-of-the-box technical thinking that we saw on film in Gravity and in real life in the Apollo 13 mission, and Weir does an excellent job through meticulous research in making everything feel impressively credible and authentic. Then again, he’s a computer programmer and his father is a particle physicist so he certainly has a more than adequate pedigree to know the subject inside and out. As a result he doesn’t stint on the technical details he unloads on the reader, and indeed I can imagine a lot of people being rather put off as Watney muses out loud as he fastidiously calculates how much air and water he has, how to extend his food supplies, and what so do about contacting Earth which still has no idea that he’s even still alive. Personally I loved all this complex program solving, but then I’m a maths and science geek so I’m probably not the best person to ask regarding how accessible it is for the ordinary layperson. If nothing else I found out a huge amount about the role of bacteria in propagating crops from this book. Sounds thrilling? Well, actually it is.
As the book goes on (and this may count as spoilers, so please read on at your discretion) the book soon needs to move away from its initial conceit of telling the story from Watney’s first person perspective via his daily recorded log entries, and instead find more varied ways of propelling the narrative which include a traditional third person style of events in other locations such as back in Houston and a ‘God’s eye’ perspective as well as a mishmash of other email, text, journal and video messages. To be honest it’s a bit untidy and probably the sort of thing that a scrupulous editor would send back with a ‘Try harder’ sticker on it, but in fact in context it works perfectly well and is certainly better than slavishly adhering to the log entries alone purely for the sake of it, like so many tiresome found footage films of recent years. In many ways the feeling that the book has been patched together slightly hamfistedly from the materials at hand, no matter how messy the seams might end up showing, rather matches and suits the entire story.
An example comes halfway through the book, just when things seem to be going – for once – reasonably well. Even so, in between the latest updates from Watney come strange abstracted passages about how the material comprising the astronauts’ Martian surface living quarters has been created, right from first principles several years before the mission even got underway. As it goes on, and describes the various stresses and strains that the habitat is placed under, it becomes horrifyingly inevitable that what it’s doing is telling you why exactly our protagonist is about to die without warning – and the tension becomes nigh-on unbearable as you wait for it to happen. Basically, Alfred Hitchcock would find a kindred spirit in Andy Weir when it comes to creating and sustaining suspense instead of going for the simple shock out of the blue.
As the book goes on, the intercutting between the various storytelling formats and points of view picks up pace. Where once an entire chapter would be given over to one aspect of the story, toward the end you’re ricocheting between them every few paragraphs. Again that might not be textbook writing, but the approach doesn’t half inject an escalating sense of pace and excitement as things near the climax, when it’s no longer just Watney’s life in peril.
Of course the most important aspect of a story like this is that you genuinely care about the person at the heart of it, and fortunately Weir does an excellent job in making Watney a likeable character, with enough self-deprecating wit to make you laugh or at least chuckle as he tackles the latest setback to his chances of survival with only an extensive archive of Agatha Christie novels, 70s US television shows and disco music to keep him company. While personable and no automaton, Watney is still credible as someone who would have made it through the astronaut training programming, proficient not only in the technical side of things needed to keep him alive but also well-balanced enough mentally to keep going in circumstances that are frankly utterly without any realistic hope. Other characters get significantly less time of course but nonetheless make an impression, such as the original mission commander Melissa Lewis who is guilt-ridden at having one of her crew members apparently die on her watch.
Overall it’s an impressive book and well worth a read if you’re remotely interested in the subject matter. Don’t get put off by the scientific detail – you’ll be surprised by how much you pick up even if you have no background in this sort of thing. It will certainly be interesting to see how all that detail transfers to the big screen, because The Martian has already been optioned and a movie starring Matt Damon as Watney and Jessica Chastain as Lewis is currently in production, directed by Ridley Scott with a 2015 release date in mind. I didn’t know that when I originally picked up the book and started to read, but having now finished it I can absolutely see why it would make for such a good film project. I may even have to rouse myself and go to the cinema for once to see it – a mark of how impressed I am by the source book itself.
The Martian is currently available in paperback and in e-book format.