I'm a hard-science science fiction fan and would rather read hard sc-fi than almost anything. I love stories and movies about Mars, and I'm a fan of survival, castaway, and man-against-the elements stories. I loved Robinson Crusoe, so it should not surprise you that I loved the movie, Robinson Crusoe on Mars. I realize it's not Academy Award material, but to me, it's everything I want it to be, as was this book, The Martian.
The main character, Watney, presumed dead, is accidentally left by his crew mates when an intense Martian dust storm forces them to abort their mission. What follows for part of the book is a logbook style narrative that describes in great technical detail Watney's efforts to extend his life until the next scheduled mission arrives in 4 years. After reading just the first 20% of the book (my Kindle has no page numbers) one can't help but be impressed by the author's depth of knowledge in this regard. In fact, the entire book is an astronaut's primer on extraterrestrial and deep space survival and rescue.
The Martian isn't without its typos and editorial glitches, and I'm not sure if this was a result of a bad Kindle conversion or just a shortsighted editor. For me, though, typos and editing issues paled in comparison to the snowballing storyline, which I gladly admit is not for everyone.
This is not a touchy-feely book about love, romance or relationships. There is no overpowering angle between characters. No good guys in white hats and bad guys in black hats. There's no room for cliches. It's all very business like and scientific. So, if you're looking for Twilight in Space. Or Fifty Shades of Mars. Or Tom Hanks making himself a friend by drawing a face on a soccer ball, you'll probably want to skip this one. This book is simply about the mission, and the cold reality of working hard to turn a wrong into a right.
Another thing you won't find in this book is a lot of heartfelt reminiscing or reflection. There are no flashbacks of our main character fishing with Dad at the old water hole, or him riding his first bicycle without training wheels. This is a book about a guy with a keen intellect surviving on a hostile planet and doing so by making the most out of a given set of resources.
About a third of the way through the book, the author adds third person narratives from mission control and the Hermes space craft, the latter manned by the crew that left our hero behind -- and make no mistake, hero is the operative word. Again, we don't follow our mission control cast of characters back too their respective homes and meet their wives and husbands and get served up cliche insights into their innermost thoughts. Blech! I hate those stories! Which doesn't mean these characters are cookie cutter or superficial. On the contrary, I found the characters sufficiently individuated and interesting.
I highly recommend this book to people who are into reading hard sci-fi of the not-too-distant future, sci-fi without blasters and ray guns or 9' tall aliens that bleed acid. (Btw, I like those stories, too, but good ones are hard to find.)
Somebody did their homework on this one -- and that's what stands out above all else.
"I'm stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I'm dead. I'm in a Hab designed to last 31 days. If the Oxygenator breaks down, I'll suffocate. If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I'll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I'll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I'll eventually run out of food and starve to death. So yeah. I'm f----d." - Mark Watney
As the two-hundred thirty-fourth reader to review THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir, I have no illusion that I can add anything substantive to the plaudits already heaped on this intelligent work of space sci-fi. Simply put, it's a nail-biter that'll trim your finger nail plates down even with the nail beds.
My reading tastes usually don't encompass space fiction because the vast majority of it seems to fall within the realm of extreme fantasy with worlds and ETs of the most fantastical sorts. I prefer my off-Earth stories to have some plausible connection with realistic, albeit extrapolated, technology and situations, and the one book that remains embedded in my memory as simply terrific is from all the way back in 1975 when I was much younger and perhaps more impressionable - Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama. With films, I'm the same way; Outland and Silent Running come to mind. THE MARTIAN is my kind of SF.
In Mars mission engineer-botanist Mark Watney we have a thinking man's hero for the ages, and THE MARTIAN is a story that cries out to be serialized for television.
THE MARTIAN would be ideal for a lengthy trans-ocean plane flight. If you start the book on take-off, you'll likely finish on landing and not even be aware of the hours that passed or the screaming kid a couple of rows back.
You owe yourself this novel. Trust me.
on October 23, 2012
A futuristic Robinson Crusoe! Due to a dust storm, Mark Watney is left for dead in the Acidalia region of Mars when the Ares 3 mission is aborted 6 days into the scheduled two months. What follows is largely a logbook of living in a large tent or a small rover for about 550 days on what was supposed to be two month's rations for 6 people. Fortunately there were some potatoes for thanksgiving that were alive, so Mark starts dividing them and growing them. But first he has to make soil, and then water, and so on. Generally speaking, a logbook is a poor technique, but here it is brilliant. You cannot have conversation, and you cannot develop other characters, but did I mention he was abandoned? Alone? You might still think that 550 days stuck in a tent or rover could get boring, but no, this book is absolutely gripping.
Watney was resourceful, and the book is very good at showing the scientific approach to problems, putting numbers to them, and showing what happens if you do what, so in a sense it is also a book of puzzles: this has gone wrong, how can it be fixed? Tension is maintained well because Watney has an unseen companion: Murphy. If it can go wrong, it does, sometimes because of Watney's own lack of knowledge. To make water, first he makes hydrogen. This is not a good idea, and Watney finds out why. Because I have also written a book centred on Mars, I know the author has really spent a lot of time understanding the nature of Mars, and this book shows quite well what being on the surface of Mars would be like. There is the odd error, probably intentional for effect, for example the effects of the dust storm are too great. Martian winds can hit up to 200 k/h, but gas pressures are about 1% of Earth's, so, after correcting for the lower gravitational acceleration and the mass of dust, the forces will still be only a few percent of those of comparable wind velocities on Earth. That, however, is forgiven, because if the author were strictly correct on this, then there would be no story.
To summarize, this is a surprisingly gripping story of survival against all the odds, and I strongly recommend it.
Ian Miller, author of Red Gold.
on January 27, 2013
This is in some ways a delightful book. It's incredibly detailed in its technical aspects, and the inventiveness of the hero is quite wonderful to watch. There's a continual vein of sardonic humor running through, and a nice sense of suspense at the cascading disasters that occur.
That said, this is a nerd's book. It is driven almost entirely by the mastery of technical details, which are set forth more like engineering term papers (wait, were there even papers in Engineering? I was an English major...) than story narrative. There is a modicum of fairly one-dimensional characterization layered on top of it, and a plot that consists of an almost predictable chain of catastrophes. It fits a small niche of technically-driven science fiction but lacks any of the breadth and depth of much of the genre.
I'm fascinated by the mass of 5-star reviews, given that (a) this is a book that appeals primarily to our technical side and (b) sic-fi reviewers are by and large a pretty critical lot. Interesting.
on September 28, 2012
Follow the adventure of an astronaut as he tries to survive being left on Mars.
During a mission abort of the Ares 3 Mars landing, astronaut Mark Watney is thought dead as the rest of the crew does an emergency evacuation from the surface of Mars. Follow Mark as he fights to survive on a planet that really doesn't like living things.
The author, Andy Weir, wrote this over a long period of time in a serial format and I waited patiently for every chapter. Now that it is complete it is even better. Thank you Andy.
on March 29, 2014
The Martian has all the right elements for a classic adventure tale: a modern day "shipwrecked" explorer with limited resources but lots of ingenuity and technical know-how, fighting for survival in a dangerous environment. The level of scientific and engineering detail fills the narrative with a vivid sense of realism. At first glance, it reminded me of Robert A. Heinlein's hard scifi stories, so I was pretty excited about reading it.
The first few pages reeled me right in, but the more I read of The Martian, the less I enjoyed it. I like hard scifi, so I was expecting The Martian to be heavier on the science than on character development. When a novelist puts characters in life-or-death situations though, I do expect him to flesh those characters out at least enough to interest me in their fate. The people in this book are so very flat and undeveloped that they never even come to life.
The novel is mostly journal entries written by the main character, astronaut Mark Watley. Given that he & his crewmates lived together in a spaceship for months on end, seems he'd have something interesting to relate about them (and himself). Instead, the reader hears who is The Hot One, who is The Religious One, who loves disco and who hates it.
What finally ruined the book for me is the author's sloppy approach to writing dialogue, particularly Watley's. As a protagonist, he's inventive, intelligent and persistent, while still human enough to make mistakes. His situation predisposes the reader to like him, or at least root for him. Unfortunately, the author writes such clumsy dialogue that Watley often sounds annoying if not outright obnoxious. Human qualities, yes, but not good ones for your main character to exhibit. I guess the author pictured Watley as an amusing, cheeky rogue. Instead, he comes across as irritatingly juvenile...I almost expected him to start telling knock-knock jokes.
I hope this author continues to write; he's got the "science" part of SF mastered, though the fiction aspect still needs work. He does a good job with action, and the "stranded on Mars" scenario itself is fascinating to imagine. But when the characters aren't interesting or engaging, what should have been an exciting story becomes an increasingly monotonous account of what broke and what got fixed.
on December 13, 2014
Andy Weir's mind-bending short story The Egg was my introduction to his work. Available to read for free on his website as of this writing, it explores the aftermath of a car crash, and demonstrates Weir's spare, but deep and engaging writing style. Recently, while discussing Chris Nolan's Interstellar among friends, I heard Weir had a new book out when someone mentioned Ridley Scott would be adapting The Martian for film. With how much I enjoyed these other works and their respective messages about humanity, I was ready to dive in to Weir's debut novel, expecting greatness. But it isn't there. Where Interstellar or The Egg are deeply emotional, human stories, equal parts introspection and cosmic pilgrimage, The Martian is the inexplicably cheerful diary of a know-it-all, describing his efforts to return to his home in the comments section of reddit.
Due to an accident during a Martian sandstorm in which he is presumed killed, fellow astronauts maroon the narrator, botanist and engineer Mark Watney, on the Red Planet. He is forced to survive in a small space, without contact with other humans, for years. His friends left and took the radio. If the food doesn't run out first, the water or oxygen will. The situation is, as he implies in the opening lines, quite dire. As a reader: okay. So far, so good. The obvious question is, "What type of rugged techie survivalist is Watney? What is he going to do to get out of this?" Turns out that he was the "comic relief" of his crew--less Jack London or Liam Neeson, more Bozo the Astronaut or MacGyver in a propeller hat.
Maybe it's the bad TV and music he consumes which makes Watney's log entries, which comprise most of the book, read like +1000 comments on reddit, but never mind the cause. To anyone outside of that culture, it's insufferable.
To clarify, I am not at all opposed to hard science fiction, technical jargon, or research. Getting some technical bits right while you make stuff up is important, as Weir, son of a particle physicist, surely knows. Apollo 13 could have been a tragedy, but technical badasses on both ends averted it. Using science and gumption to save yourself from dying on an inhospitable alien planet is BAD ASS. The problem is, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, "They should have sent a poet... not this dweeb." I don't know what kind of device he's writing these log entries on, but Watney's phraser is a semi-auto loaded with exclamation points (yay!)! His jokes are regrettable and cringeworthy coming from an adult man (bwa ha ha!)! They might be why his crew actually left him on Mars.
Such stumbling could be forgiven if the rest of the story and characters were compelling, but they aren't. There are cool swashbuckling ideas, like re-purposing old probes for survival, or using a nuke as a space heater to save electricity, but in execution, the adventure of it all is buried under an avalanche of facts and figures. In serious mode, Watney sucks the suspense and life from the narrative by writing it in the style of instructions for putting together a piece of furniture. Even scenes which involve playing with rocket fuel are marred by tedium. Maybe it's all some kind of ironic meta-commentary on the ill effects of staying shut indoors away from people for extended periods: you become euphoric about chemistry equations and poop jokes. Again, though, it's terrible.
Most of all, The Martian needs some genuine danger, damn it. For being stranded and alone in a freezing, rusted desert tens of millions of miles away from civilization, Watney comes across as remarkably comfortable and unconcerned. Whatever the environment throws at him, he has an answer. His mistakes are trivial and few, so one never worries that he won't survive. Aside from almost blowing himself up and being alone, the greatest adversities he faces in the first third of the novel are an uncomfortable car seat, unswept solar panels, and disco music. At one point, he needs to load solar panels onto the roof of his rover, but they weigh quite a bit even with lower Martian gravity. "Uh oh," the experienced sf reader might think, "I know where this is headed. He's going to break a panel and screw himself over!" Nah. He rigs something up and instantly the artificial problem is solved. It's almost a footnote in his log, as if it didn't exist to begin with. This is a recurring theme.
The Martian is a disappointment, less of a novel and more of an overlong blog post infused with the stink of edutainment, and not even the fun Oregon Trail kind. Again, there is nothing wrong with learning cool science things--I encourage doing so--but in a novel, this should come second to learning about the characters and their struggles. To The Martian, the opposite is true. Or maybe I just hate Mark Watney and wish there could have been a character building, Cast Away dentistry scene.
(I still have hopes for the movie adaptation. It could outshine the book if it nixes Watney's narration.)
on January 6, 2015
I understand the 5-star reviews -- but I can only give The Martian 3.
To his immense credit, Andy Weir has re-invented Daniel Defoe's terrifically popular 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe and turned it into a nerd's fantasy of engineering competency. This is a huge achievement, and yet it is flawed.
Robinson Crusoe dealt with a shipwrecked sailor's survival narrative, and The Martian is likewise at core a survival narrative. Survival forms the core tension for novels as diverse as Lord of The Flies, Hatchet, The Hunger Games, Flight of The Phoenix, and Jurassic Park. The varying literary quality can range from young adult (Hatchet) to the serious literary concerns of Lord Of The Flies.
In the case of The Martian, Weir invented his own genre (another considerable achievement, maybe worth 5 stars alone.) Call it the uber-engineering problem-solver technology puzzle survival narrative. This structure of creating problems (puzzles) to be solved in order for the hero to survive and then having the hero solve them is gratifying and fun. You hope to God that if you were stranded on Mars, you'd be as smart as Weir's astronaut hero and figure out such crazy, clever inventive solutions. This problem solving structure, a strength of the book - is also a weakness, because 90% of the plot goes like this:
1. Astronaut Mark Watney meets technical problem A, solves with clever solution B.
2. Astronaut Mark Watney meets technical problem C, solves with clever solution D.
3. Astronaut Mark Watney meets technical problem E, solves with clever solution F.
4. REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT
This novel argues a deep faith in human reason and hard work to solve any problem, and that reveals a naïve core. Because the book never strays far from the technical details to investigate any of the bigger problems that more serious science fiction might address.
(Aside:) I was at a presentation at the Rand corporation where the engineers present demonstrated crazy hubris in their ability to solve global warming. Their attitude: "Don't worry, if climate gets really bad we'll write some code - that's what we do."
Still, if you are going to write hard science fiction, it's easy to get trapped within the known limits of technology. And one of the things Weir does well is to poke into every corner of the known. I am sure he had fun researching this book, and learning details about the battery that went into the 1997 Pathfinder probe. There are limits to that kind of convincing detail, because while readers want that, they also want to connect with the human factor, and interesting complex characters.
Astronaut Mark Watney's log feels believably written because his entries are composed like you'd expect a guy with an engineering degree to write. This is not a slight at guys with engineering degrees (Norman Mailer studied engineering for awhile.) But engineers are typically less interested in stylist prose than cool engineering details. Any lack of style on Weir's part actually adds to the credibility of his hero Watney's log. And Watney, he is exactly what we have been told astronauts are like: brilliant, cheerful, can-do and tireless. Another writer might have aired Watney's depressive doubts or discussed his futile sex life on Mars, but Weir stays in "the clean room." Watney is iconic, a can-do American engineer and farmer. He can even farm Mars, no problem. This book celebrates our belief in that mythic hero, the American astronaut, no doubt a strong part of it's appeal. Possibly, if there is an emotional connection and an emotional core to the book it is here. We wish people like American Astronaut Mark Watney existed and if they did we would happily root for their survival. Likely, the readers that love this book are responding to that note.
Bottom line, if you are an engineer, you will love this book because it confirms everything about life that ever made you want to be an engineer. But if you are not an engineer, but are just interested in reading the best of imaginative hard science fiction there are better books. Books that engage bigger questions and open worlds of wonder and philosophical inquiry.
Here are a few:
Rendezvous With Rama (Arthur C. Clarke)
Foundation (Isaac Asimov)
Ringworld (Larry Niven)
Revelation Space (Alastair Reynolds)
The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)
Spin (Robert Charles Wilson)
Contact (Carl Sagan)
Downbelow Station (C. J. Cherryh)
Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)
The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson)
on March 11, 2014
Sorry...i really wanted to like this book based on the reviews. The science pieces were indeed believable and well reasoned. What i didn't like is the actual style of the prose. The contrast of highly cerebral science to high-school level writing made for an awkward read.
on August 7, 2015
I just finished co-authoring a white paper on the plug-in hybrid car and how it can save the world. My fellow author is a professor of mechanical engineering, and had to make a student of me before I could process his ideas into English. The protagonist's survival in "The Martian" depends largely on his McGiver-ish ability to use creatively his knowledge of mechanical engineering. I really enjoyed seeing concepts of physics take on vivid meaning in this suspenseful context. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie version.