This is one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time. But before I get into why it’s amazing, let me quickly detail why it’s imperfect.
1. It started on the Internet. That’s not an automatic negative mark, and it’s probably the weakest black mark I have against it, but knowing that this was originally written Dickens-style on a blog made some of its flaws more obvious, including a few grammatical errors common to the casual intellectual marketplace of the Internet and the staccato progression that sometimes accompanies updates on a schedule (don’t worry, I thought the same thing of Dickens, on occasion).
2. Audience targeting. It’s never made entirely clear why Mark Watney (the eponymous character and frequent narrator) assumes that his mission logs will be browsed by laypersons, but it makes perfect sense for a novel of this sort. For the most part, Mr. Weir manages to work this out fairly well, with minimal intrusion, but once in a while, I read something and thought, “That only makes sense if your reader is completely unrelated to NASA/the probable first reader of your mission logs.”
3. My own nit-pickiness. (This issue continues for several paragraphs below.) I don’t care for cuss words (the fourth word of the novel is the F-word), but frankly, in this book more than others, it makes a lot of sense. The guy had just discovered he was abandoned on Mars and likely to die. If ever there’s a time to cuss… it’s then.
At one point, early in the book, Mr. Weir describes the ion drives of the primary interplanetary vessel, explaining that they “accelerate constantly the whole way there.” My first thought was, “If you accelerate the whole way there, how do you stop?” This even becomes a plot point later in the novel, and frankly, it seems like an oversight here. I briefly looked into ion engines for a story of my own, and they have potential, but you have to start decelerating about halfway there (unless you have some other engines for stopping). (Granted, “deceleration” in scientific terms is just “acceleration” in the other direction, but that would still mean an odd maneuver, like turning the ship around and switching the engines on the other direction to slow you down. Some sci-fi sources solve this by having engines on both ends of the ship, which makes a lot of sense to me, but ends up pretty ugly and probably expensive. There’s no friction to stop ships in space, after all.)
Also, weird random moments. Two-thirds of the way through or so, we hear Teddy (head of NASA) telling Annie (media relations) to excuse Mitch (mission commander) for his impertinent attitude, because men-testosterone-some-weird-nonsense. Meanwhile, Annie has been cussing like a sailor with a bad attitude since we met her, and seems the least likely of all the characters in the novel to be offended by someone flying off the handle. It’s kind of a baffling moment, but it passes quickly.
4. Heavy-handed pedantry. It lasts for all of a page (the last one in the book), but it ties into the least believable part of the novel: how everyone in the world bands together and spends millions of dollars in an effort to save one guy. I just don’t quite buy it. The way it’s presented for most of the novel, I can buy, if only because a few individuals might be able to pull this off, but there’s a notable lack of people saying, “Well, that sucks, but I guess he’s just going to die now. It’s just too expensive to do anything about it.” Because it’s fiction, I’m happy to aim for the happy ending, but to suggest there’s no antagonism toward this “save one guy in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars” plan? None at all? That’s a little strange. And then for Watney to come back on for a page to talk about how inherently good people are is just too heavy-handed a conclusion.
And that’s pretty much all I have to complain about this novel. It may seem like a lot, but I’m being highly critical (more than usual), because I was really hoping a novel with this kind of success could be easily achieved (Mr. Weir is both more intelligent and a better writer than I am, so I punish him by saying mildly unkind things about his debut novel). There was an awful lot to like (hence the five stars), but it’s not a guaranteed delight. For example, it is–first and foremost–a survival thriller. If you’re at all like my wife, and you get insanely stressed out when fictional characters might die, this is not the book for you. The “everyone might die” scenario is pretty much on the table until the last page. Which I enjoyed. But you might not.
I also like math. I didn’t study math, but given, oh, two or three more chances to go to college, I totally would. It’s right up there with computer science and physics for “most delightful college degrees I didn’t get.” This book has a lot of math. It’s frequently made accessible to the layperson (see “audience targeting” above), so it doesn’t interrupt the flow, but math and science are pretty much the bread and butter of this novel. I have heard it said that “The Martian” is like a full-length story just like that bit in Apollo 13 when the NASA guys get in a room and try to figure out how to make the square peg fit in the round hole; I find that an entertainingly accurate summation.
Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Weir does what almost no other author does: he makes me laugh. Most “comedic” books, even the vaunted Terry Pratchett, leave me saying, “Yep, that’s funny,” but not actually laughing. Perhaps (probably?) aided by his first-person perspective, Mr. Weir accomplishes genuine comedic timing, and delivers time and again with humor that I find delightful. (It may not be your style. Lots of sarcasm, and a little absurdity. It’s perfect.)
I haven’t seen the film yet, but I intend to. Given the content and style of the book, and that the film stars Matt Damon, I imagine that the film is a combination of Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, and Cast Away, minus Tom Hanks.