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For me, the addictive quality here is placing a hazily drawn but charming pragmatist in a series of life-threatening mishaps and watching him figure out to survive. I’ve read it described as Cast Away meets Apollo 13, and that’s not a bad way of thinking about it. The tone is strictly realistic. Don’t pick up this novel expecting any of the stuff that happens in Hollywood movies about Mars to happen in this story. Really, it’s a very simple tale, well-told, about a man marooned on Mars. Watney is portrayed as a geeky, hyper-competent engineer with a strong survival instinct. He cracks jokes, uses math to solve problems, and rages against disco. He’s basically like every engineer I’ve ever met. The conflicts of the novel grow organically from the problems Watney encounters and his attempts to solve them.
Is that enough? Well, enjoying a book is a subjective experience. For me, looking for a quick read right before a long weekend at Arisia, The Martian was the perfect prescription. It is a slight book, easy to read, hard to put down. I think understood in that context, the slender ambitions of the book are forgivable. This is a book you read to be entertained in an immediate, visceral level. And on that level, it succeeds masterfully.
Weir was smart to focus on these survival aspects and down-play Watney’s past, his connections with his crew-mates, and the larger questions of exploring Mars. The evidence from non-Watney chapters suggests the author wasn’t ready to broaden his vision for this story much beyond the question of whether this one astronaut would be rescued - the secondary characters are very flat and the conflicts between people back home and in the Hermes spacecraft returning home are very much on the level of office politics. Which is fine. These sections aren’t the point; they exist in service of the point.
A part of me reading this book, however, grew nostalgic for Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson was able to describe the gritty struggle for survival in the early years of Martian colonization but he could also reach for higher themes. The ancient wastes of Robinson’s Mars evoked a timeless canvas for Man’s struggles. There was poetry to his Mars, and terrible beauty.
Weir’s Mars is an empty theater for hilarious and profane rants.
The thing that most bugged me most about this novel, though, was the potential for larger conflicts. Weir touches about the sacrifices that individuals, nations, and arguably the planet, need to make in order to save one lost American, but he doesn’t dwell on the subject. I kept asking myself if it was realistic for so many missions and resources to be shelved or repurposed to save one man, and if, in the grand sum, that was the correct decision. I’m not suggesting it wasn’t morally justifiable but I think a single voice raised in earnest opposition, to express the view point of the gimlet-eyed realist, would have made the Earthbound sections more interesting. It would have at least given the book an interesting human antagonist, a voice for nature.
With a movie coming out this Fall, directed by Ridley Scott, now is the time to read this book. Watney’s part will be played by Matt Damon who will bring his own baggage to the role. It’s not to say that Scott will ruin the book or Damon is a bad casting choice or anything, I would just suggest that the pleasures of this book are distinctly those of a ‘fast read,’ and before Hollywood colonizes Weir’s story, it might be better to enjoy The Martian on its own terms.