To start out with, I have to make a confession that I’m a bit of an outer space geek. I’m not that into Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica. What I’m more excited by are factual books and programs about space. One of my favourite before-bed activities is to read an oversized book someone bought me about the universe or watch the excellent BBC 1999 miniseries The Planets which provides a well-documented history of space travel. Ever since a holiday I took to Death Valley where I got to ride in a convertible with the top down and stare at the crystal-clear star-filled night sky I’ve been entranced by the stranger-than-fiction fact of the universe. So ever since hearing about Andy Weir’s massively popular novel “The Martian” described as a Robinson Crusoe story on Mars I’ve wanted to read it – especially since I actually read “Robinson Crusoe” earlier this summer. This novel is a true phenomenon as it was originally self-published, topped the Amazon bestseller list through a swiftly growing fan base and has since become a huge best-seller that’s edged into lots of top books of 2014 lists. It’s also being made into a film starring Matt Damon which is due to be released late in 2015. With all this hype, I was expecting a meditative story about man’s isolation in the universe as well as a riveting adventurous tale. I found the book to be entirely about the later.
The book starts in the middle of the action with astronaut Mark Watney suddenly finding himself stranded on Mars when the crew of the Ares 3 mission are forced to evacuate because of a large dust storm. He’s been slightly injured but able to secure himself in a small habitat that’s been set up on the planet. However, the other crew members of his mission assume he died from his accident so continue on their journey back to Earth and Mark has no ability to contact NASA to let them know about his predicament. All he has on this barren dusty planet is the relatively small habitat, a short supply of food, exploration equipment that’s been left behind and a few potatoes. How to get out alive? The novel is about Mark’s struggle to survive. It’s made up of alternate first person accounts by Mark logging in diary entries (Mark emphatically declares “I might die, but damn it, someone will know what I had to say.”) and passages about what’s happening on Earth and in the mission’s space ship.
There are some good, tense moments in this novel. However, after a while, it came across as a bit repetitive despite an impressive array of new obstacles that are put in Mark’s way. I got slightly bored through parts of it where the structural formula of each section starts to read like science – science – dilemma – scientific solution. It was a bit like watching an episode of Star Trek Enterprise where the viewer is presented with a seemingly impossible technical problem which is swiftly solved at the end of the show with a scientific solution that could never have been foreseen by us dumb civilians. Worried about freezing cold oxygen and nitrogen coming out of your regulator? Use the 1500 watts of heat from a buried lump of plutonium to constantly reheat the air. Duh! I’m being a bit harsh as it is all quite clever and I’m sure Weir did a massive about of research. All the science mumbo jumbo is made palatable for readers because Mark dumbs down the language and maintains a jocular tone in his diary entries. His tone gets a bit hokey at times, but is entertaining.
Less successful are the scenes between NASA technicians, publicity staff and mission crew members. Many exchanges occur with somewhat stilted dialogue and, although there was some character development between these people back on Earth, I didn’t care much about these characters. While Mark struggles with maintaining basics like eating and breathing, a media storm whips up on Earth where all of civilization wonders how Mark will survive. Although I realize NASA was under pressure because of this to help rescue Mark I did start to wonder: how much is it costing to save one man who willingly took this high-risk job? Not only is there the money which no doubt could have gone to helping thousands of lives on Earth. A Chinese scientist also remarks upon the mission to rescue Mark that “The operation is a net loss for mankind’s knowledge” as other important scientific space mission are abandoned in order to aid Mark’s retrieval. Mark himself acknowledges that attempts to save him must have cost “hundreds of millions of dollars.” I know the reader is supposed to be gripped and root for Mark’s survival, but even though he’s a nice guy I couldn’t help wondering if all that sacrifice is really worth it. It makes Weir’s overarching statement about the inherent goodness of humanity and the innate desire to help our fellow man falls a bit flat.
For a book that takes place on another planet and in outer space, there is very little description about what any of these extraordinary locations look like. However, Weir is good at describing Mark’s gradual physical breakdown from living on the Martian territory and the cringe-worthy smells that arise from breathing re-circulated air in a confined space that allows precious few bathing opportunities. Apart from the extremely occasional observation about the environment: “I never realized how utterly silent Mars is. It’s a desert world with practically no atmosphere to convey sound” all of Mark’s entries on Mars are about the minutiae of the science and technology he has at hand. Granted, he had already been on Mars for his mission before the book started so perhaps he was no longer awe-struck and he’s more consumed with immediate survival. However, he admits to having long periods of down time which he primarily spends watching old episodes of the show Three’s Company he found on another astronaut’s hard drive or reading pulp novels. He’s more reflective about these bits of ephemera than the condition of being stranded on another planet. Even when he has moments to appreciate the spectacular nature of his location such as this moment when he reaches a crater: “I got up to the rim, and damn, it’s a beautiful sight. From my high vantage point, I got a stunning panorama” there is no further description offered. He might as well be a tourist describing the view over the Grand Canyon. Granted, his character is a scientist not an artist, writer or philosopher. However, I would guess most scientists that pursue space travel so rigorously do so because they harbour underlying questions about the meaning of our existence in such a big empty universe. Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco is startlingly eloquent when pondering the meaning of humanity and the cosmos. Personally I would have enjoyed Mark’s narrative more if he were more than just a dry-natured, straightforward goofy guy.
This is where this novel diverges sharply from “Robinson Crusoe.” For all of Defoe’s questionable insights into human nature, at least he spends some time contemplating a man’s existential position when physically cut off from the rest of humanity. To be honest, the 1964 film Robinson Crusoe on Mars is even more intellectually searching with long passage of time devoted to Paul Mantee’s looking at wonder at the alien landscape and experiencing a piteous sense of isolation. Also, the film poster of a spaceman in a torn suit clutching a near naked man is much more appealing and enjoyably kitsch than the cover of “The Martian” but that just shows my personal taste.
Although I was expecting somewhat more of a literary novel, this book is not much more than a well-conceived straightforward thriller as it’s all about the plot rather than showing any reflective insight about life or doing anything interesting with language. Weir has a background in computer science and that very much comes across in his writing style. That’s totally fine as parts were thrilling and the novel gives a thoroughly convincing (at least from my extremely limited knowledge of science and technology) account of the logistics of trying to live on Mars as well as launching a wild NASA rescue mission. I just want a bit more from the novels I read and it felt like the author avoided any opportunities there were to bring alive the awe-inspiring fact of outer space or describe what must have been a visually spectacular place. In other words, I feel like this book is passive entertainment but in no way enriching. However, I am excited about seeing the upcoming film. With such a massive budget it will no doubt be spectacular and thrilling and actually show the beauty of space.