The Martian, by Andy Weir, is a rare example of excellent “hard” science fiction, great suspense writing and an old-fashioned space adventure, complete with lots of plausible and realistic science and some great characters. It sports astonishingly clear writing, and despite what in retrospect is an obvious formula, it has a fresh energy and lightness that carries the reader past any sort of hangups about cliche.
[Unlike most of my reviews, this one contains no major Spoilers!]
Brian de Palma’s profoundly disappointing 2000 film Mission to Mars was so excruciating because it should have been a triumph. Great special effects, a first-rate cast (Don Cheadle plays the third-string crew member to give you a sense of the cast’s deep bench of talent) and some intriguing situations were buried under a mess of pseudo-philosophical nonsense and some breathtakingly bad science. But for the first third, if not the first half, this was a film with real promise. The scenario was that a Mars expedition encountered a violent dust storm and, as far as earth knew, all the crew were killed. A second mission was sent in the footsteps of the first to find one original crew member (Cheadle) still alive, having managed to fabricate life support equipment on Mars, and investigate the cause of the original incident. Along the way, the transport vessel runs into problems and the crew must perform a daring landing on Mars involving the loss of a key crew member during a risky EVA. So far, so good, and the EVA sequence around Mars hinges entirely on an understanding of gravity and motion that is, astonishingly, portrayed realistically and correctly. Sad that, later on, this film with a Master’s Degree in Physics fails fifth-grade Biology and expects us not to notice. (Just as the 2013 film Gravity tried to play it both ways with the science: showing us ostensibly realistic sequences and then violating basic laws of physics or any semblance of realism whenever it suited the story.)
I mention those two films – Gravity and Mission to Mars – because I personally am a sucker for stories like that, which combine science and space and show us plausible future space scenarios. Heck, I even watched Defying Gravity. So, if those films failed to connect with someone like me, their ideal audience, then someone in the food chain doesn’t respect the audience much. That’s my conclusion, anyhow.
The Martian, on the other hand, is everything I wanted those movies to be. In a plot almost identical to the first half of Mission to Mars, a Mars exploration crew (in this case, humanity’s third mission to the planet) encounters a violent dust storm and is forced to evacuate in a hurry. Left behind, and presumed dead, is astronaut Mark Watney, who was last seen being stabbed by a flying antenna and blown into a crater, so therefore quite logically left for dead by his compatriots, who make it to orbit and being the return to earth. Only, Watney isn’t dead, having improbably (but not impossibly, because this book respects the reader’s intelligence) survived the storm. He faces little hope of rescue, and lacks any sort of radio, prohibiting direct communication with Earth, but settles down anyhow into the business of survival. (He eventually, for example, works out a communication system based on setting stones out to spell words in Morse code that Mars-orbiters can photograph and beam the image back to Earth.)
One of the most effective devices in the book is the use of a first person, blog-like narrative voice, ostensibly Watney’s diary. His quick wit, abundance of humour and snark and cutting intelligence blasts through like a ray in these passages. The very first line is, “I’m fucked,” and he continues to be honest and plain-spoken all the way through, even when describing how he managed to liberate hydrogen from leftover hydrazine rocket fuel and liquid oxygen to create water. Watney in fact goes into great detail about his various survival strategies, including turning the abandoned Habitation Module into a farm, growing his own potatoes and creating mulch from human waste mixed with Martian soil. Its all absolutely plausible, however unlikely. Each of Watney’s innovations would, in reality, have only the smallest chance of working. Honestly, the odds of everything in this book coming off as it is described are extremely low, but not zero, and that’s the key. Unlike the ridiculous fantasy trying to pass as reality in Gravity, nothing described here is impossible, simply improbable.
Watney’s adventures on Mars itself are only one third of the story, although we do spend the most time there. Weir also breaks into a third person and much more clinical narrative voice describing the reaction on Earth, as NASA discovers that their astronaut has survived. Once again, things are handled realistically. In what would be the logical reaction, Watney’s survival creates a world media frenzy and action on a global scale to save this one person, accidentally stranded millions of kilometers from home. The analysis within the corridors of NASA, however, is portrayed as prudent and cautious, which is the culture of the modern version of that agency. They quite frankly discuss how realistic (or not) it is to rescue Watney. Their first attempt, to load a capsule full of food and blast it to him quickly, ends in disaster as they hadn’t thought through the whole procedure. An important part of the final solution (which I won’t reveal here) involves cooperating with the Chinese space program, and the Chinese are much more clear-headed, or at least less sentimental, about the notion of sacrificing millions of dollars and years of technological development to save one, single human. But they do go along with the scheme, in any case. Weir is wise, though, to at least raise that issue.
The third element of the story features the remaining Mars astronauts, on their way back to Earth in the large return vessel, Hermes. Ironically, and with a certain cruel logic, they are the last to know that Watney is alive. Earth discovers the stranded astronaut but elects to not reveal his existence to his former companions, reasoning that they might feel terrible guilt about leaving him behind and try something dangerous, heroic and unauthorized with Hermes to get him back. When the crew, featuring flirtatious pilot Martinez, colourful German scientist Vogel and steely, vulnerable Commander Lewis, finally learns of Watney’s survival, emotions do run high. Without spoiling the ending, which in retrospect is obvious the whole time, the crew of Hermes plays a major role in the book’s exciting climax.
One of the most wonderful things about The Martian is how it hasn’t forgotten that science fiction stories are just like any other kind of story, or at least they generally fall into one other category or have historical storytelling precedent. The Martian is essentially a classic tale from the age of exploration, whether it be Lewis and Clark, or more directly some of the polar explorers from the 19th century, who travelled far from home to a hostile environment in which they spent years, living by improvisation and cleverness, afforded no communication with the outside world. Like Watney, they kept diaries through the long winter nights, and sometimes those diaries are all that survives them. Nothing that occurs in this story is emotionally substantially different from what those explorers of another age experienced, and that’s one of the oldest and most effective tools of creating compelling science fiction.
Weir has created a minor masterpiece here, a true page-turner with excellent science and vibrant characters, particularly Watney himself. Yes, it has been optioned (by Ridley Scott, no less) and next year we’ll see the inevitable film. But pick up the book the next time you have a weekend to spare, your nose tucked into a good, enthralling novel.