This is the most surprising book I read this year because I didn’t expect to like it. Despite all the hype, I thought I would give up on it because it is way outside my comfort zone. But Mark Watney’s voice pulled me in. I liked his sarcasm and optimism, which kept me reading and hoping for his survival. The scientific technicalities dampened my interest a little but the characters’ personalities and my curiosity about how the story would end kept me reading.
The Martian is a science-fiction novel about an astronaut stranded on Mars. Mark Watney was left behind when a sandstorm swept him away from his crew. Stranded with no way to communicate with his crew or NASA back on Earth, Mark has to rely on himself — strength and knowledge — to survive Mars, a planet that does not support human life.
Some spoilers. Also it’s long as fuck so I placed section headings to make it easier but that might be off-putting too. Oh well.
“My asshole is doing as much to keep me alive as my brain.”
It was the hype that made me pick this up. I bought it last year but gave it to my uncle because I thought he would enjoy it more since he has a science background, and I didn’t consider reading it until I saw the e-book available on Overdrive. What made me procrastinate? The technical details. I heard that technical details were prevalent in the story but fans of the story assured me that they do not burden the story. I wanted to believe them, but it was hard. So when I started, I was grateful to find that their assertions were true.
Andy Weir is fascinated by space travel and enjoys thinking of such trips and all that’s needed for such travel so though research for this story was a lot of work, he enjoyed doing it. I’m sure those interested in such details found it interesting as well. I didn’t. I read them without really understanding them but they helped to make the story and Mark Watney’s situation more credible. I believed that being stranded on Mars is possible and all that happens to Mark and all he did to survive, such as his farm, were also possible.
Another appealing aspect of this story is that despite the dire, hopeless situation, the story is positive and uplifting. Such is not usually the case with stories about human survival, especially ones where man is pitted against nature. Such stories usually have a dark undertone that something very bad, unavoidable, and final will happen. In The Martian, the tone is not cherry; it’s heartening. It’s inspiring. It makes us and even Mark believe that things will be okay. Sometimes we lose sight of that positivity and hope but eventually it returns and that’s because of Mark’s personality, in other words, how the story is narrated.
The narration starts out in the first person because Mark maintains a journal while stranded on Mars, but it later switches to a limited third person, with different perspectives, and sometimes a universal narrator is used. I appreciated the switches in narration because it gives us more information on what is going on, the preparations being made for Mark, and what other characters besides Mark think and feel. All of this affects our response to the story because it makes us more emotionally invested in it and makes us realize how impossible Mark’s situation is. It helps to make us admire the characters.
I think the narration was done smoothly. The journal form helps Mark to speak directly to us through a thin veil so we have a first-hand account of what happens to him. Then we are able to observe his situation from afar to get a larger perspective of it (as mentioned above), and then we are further removed to an emotionless narrator that tells us the actions of things that the characters aren’t privy to. The switches between first person and limited third person were expected to make the story richer, and I expected the omniscient narrator as well because of the limited ability for communication between the characters. These switched also help to make the story less predictable so we won’t quickly conclude that Mark will survive the experience.
“But now there was nothing. I never realized how utterly silent Mars is. It’s a desert world with practically no atmosphere to convey sound. I could hear my own heartbeat.”
I found it almost unbelievable that Mark didn’t succumb to despair once he realized that he’s stuck on Mars with no hope for rescue. I admired him for not considering the negative and always thinking of the positive. Once he got back to the HAB, a temporary station on the planet, he assessed his situation and immediately started thinking of solutions. He spent the majority of his focus on immediate concerns and once those were handled, he began to consider larger ones like communication and rescue. In that way, he prevented himself from hoping for the impossible, which I think helped his sanity.
I think his maintain a journal also helped. Human beings need to communicate. We need to interact with an other in some way. Mark’s journal becomes his companion, someone he can talk to, so despite the pressing silence and lack of other bodies and miles of space and land in all directions, he’s able to hold onto himself by holding onto a fictitious someone else.
“This frigid desert has been my home for a year and a half. I figured out how to survive, at least for a while, and I got used to how things worked. My terrifying struggle to stay alive became somehow routine.”
Apart from focus and a relationship, habit also helped Mark survive, which I found fascinating because I never considered that before: That what we do everyday is our way of surviving. Of course, maxims like “You are what you do, not what you say” expresses this but I find reading about Mark’s life on Mars to be more convincing. For many of us these days, survival isn’t a pressing need. The focus is switched to living a more fulfilling life. Keeping Mark Watney in mind, it’s best to do everyday those things that will enable us to live a more fulfilling life.
Speaking of survival, the farm on Mars was mind-blowing to me because I didn’t expect it. I really appreciated all the details provided for that part because I would have thought it unbelievable otherwise. It shows that we have a wonderful relationship with nature, though we are horrible at showing our gratefulness. That section, where Weir goes in detail about all that’s needed to create condensation to help the plants grow, reminded me of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel because it shows what we take for granted on our planet. Actually the entire story highlights this.
“It’s amazing how much red tape gets cut when everyone’s rooting for one man to survive.”
The story is about man’s relationship with nature and also about his relationship with his fellow human beings. I loved that about the story. I loved seeing everyone working hard and pushing to help one man though they know failure is highly possible. Those sections tug at the heartstrings and the narration is done so well that we share the characters’ emotions. We root along with them and we hold our breath when they anticipate the results of their actions. I like what Mark says at the end that it’s human nature to want to help others in times of crises, but I thought that part was a little didactic. It sounded more like the author speaking than the character because it’s more direct, as if Mark surpassed the diary form and was speaking to the reader.
Characters and dialogue
By the way, I have a crush on Mark’s personality. It’s impossible not to like the guy. He’s intelligent, resourceful, quirky, and funny, which makes him appealing. He’s optimistic and perseveres through all obstacles to survive. He hardly allows himself to feel sad or depressed about his situation. The NASA guys are cool too and so damn smart! The characters made me feel kinda dumb, actually, because hard science is way out of my field.
The dialogue is one of the best features of the story because Mark is a smart ass and makes a lot of lame jokes. But all the characters seem similar because they all share that smart-ass trait. They are like branches of Mark because of how similar they are, or maybe I should say Weir because that may be a side of his personality he gave Mark but it extended to all the characters. But because of this it was sometimes hard to tell who was saying what because they all speak the same.
I completed the story feeling grateful for all the characters’ work though it’s all fictitious because Mars is bitch! I wouldn’t have survived there. When I think about the terrain, it’s as if Mark was trapped in a desert, one without an oasis except his HAB. Nothing and no one around and everything works against him. I wondered how the experience will affect him psychologically later in life. Does he become claustrophobic or fear being left alone? Does he always worry that his house will blow up or that he’ll run out of oxygen?
Plot and pace
Mars tries so hard to kill Mark that one has to wonder if he’ll always be anxious once he returns to Earth. However, I like that Weir uses the obstacles that arise to pace the story. They don’t occur back to back, which means that the story is pretty evenly paced. There are moments of relative ease that lure us and Mark into a sort of complacency toward the planet. I also found that the switches in narration helped the pace by showing how the story is developing from a different perspective and building anticipation in the reader. At first, I thought the story would be a monotonous retelling of Mark’s time on Mars, but the switch in narration adds some excitement about developments Mark isn’t aware of.
The writing and my reading experience
The story isn’t overly descriptive, apart from the technical details, but I found it hard to imagine what’s going on. When I read, I can easily imagine the story in my head so when I recall parts of a story, I usually recall the scene I imagined. For The Martian, it was easier for me to imagine events like things blowing up rather than how things and people look, which I found a little frustrating. I have no idea what a HAV or MAV or even Mark Watney looks like (characters’ looks aren’t always described in detail but sometimes I can imagine a face). I didn’t really understand the technical details and I grasped at imagining some of Mark’s actions because I’m unfamiliar with what occurs in space and spaceships but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the story. But reading this story was a weird experience. I felt a little blind.
Overall: ★★★★☆ ½
I’m outta steam now. But basically it’s a good story and I recommend it. If it wasn’t narrated in the way it was, I probably wouldn’t have completed it because it’s not my sort of story.
Quotes from the book:
“Once I got home, I sulked for a while. All my brilliant plans foiled by thermodynamics. Damn you, Entropy!”
“It’s a strange feeling. Everywhere I go, I’m the first. Step outside the rover? First guy there! Climb a hill? First guy to climb that hill! Kick a rock? That rock hadn’t moved in a million years!
I’m the first guy to drive long-distance on Mars. The first guy to spend more than thirty-one sols on Mars. The first guy to grow crops on Mars. First, first, first!
I wasn’t expecting to be first at anything. I was fifth crewman out of the MDV when we landed, making me the seventeenth person to set foot on Mars.”
“Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshipped.”
“Last night was weird. I knew logically that nothing bad would happen in just one night, but it was a little unnerving to know I had no life support other than heaters. My life depended on some math I’d done earlier. If I dropped a sign or added two numbers wrong, I might never wake up.”
“So I go out every night with a homemade sextant and sight Deneb. It’s kind of silly if you think about it. I’m in my space suit on Mars and I’m navigating with sixteenth-century tools. But hey, they work.”
“And the deeper into the book I got, the more excited I became, because I found that I was arriving at that place writers dream of: I was coming up with plot twists that genuinely surprised me, yet felt totally organic to the situation I’d dreamed up.” [From an essay by Weir in the end pages of the e-copy I read.]