Everyone was raving about The Martian last year so much, that I made room for it on my annual Christmas book list. This is momentous because only the most coveted, highly praised or highly desired books make it to my list. I can get books any time of the year, but these books are the ones I wait for all year. So I got The Martian, and I don’t regret it, and with a movie in the works, I’m sure some of you will want to know if the book is worth buying. Let me break it down for you in terms of what I thought was amazingly good about the book, and what was disappointingly bad.
I’ve always been fascinated by space, so the prospect of not only getting there, but getting there and being stranded was extremely attractive to me. The Martian can be incredibly fast-paced, and the constant struggle for survival by Mark Watney, the main protagonist, is keep you on the edge of your seat good. Despite Watney’s life or death trials and tribulations, Weir managed to add a self-deprecating, ribald sense of humor to the book that made me laugh out loud several times.
One would think that the most interesting parts of the book would only pertain to Watney as he lives his day-to-day life on Mars, but Weir didn’t stop there. He takes the reader behind closed doors into meetings, brainstorming sessions, and private conversations and thoughts to give the reader a certain sense of urgency that Watney doesn’t have because he only knows so much. We know what will happen before he does, and just like the characters on Earth trying to bring him back, readers will find themselves subconsciously brainstorming ways to reach Watney and warn him.
The solace and gravity of being alone on a planet with unforgiving terrain like Mars are wonderfully conveyed by Weir. I often wondered how I would fare in the instances where Watney was done doing what he needed to do for the day. Yes, he had certain diversions (which I won’t spoil for you), but there was no one to talk to, and the prospect of seeing Earth from so far away that it looks more like a distant star than a home planet with billions of people looking back and wondering at his fate is almost tragic.
I also loved how Weir deviated from the different character’s narratives to then turn the reader’s attention to the progression of events that would lead to some disaster, starting from something small and eventually culminating into something major.
Let me be clear, the “bad” is most likely subjective. Jonny Q. loved everything about The Martian. Whereas I was bored to tears by the technical jargon. When Watney was making preparations of any sort, Weir made sure to get into explicit detail down to the milliamp-hour. It was tedious to slog through every specific technical, mathematical or scientific specification or equation. If I wanted to read about that stuff, I’d crack open a manual or something. I would be engrossed in the narrative only to be hit head on with page after page of Watney’s calculations. It was boring. Now, if you’re the type to revel in that type of thing when you’re reading a book, then this isn’t a bad thing. However, if you like to read for beautiful prose and captivating storytelling, then you’ll slog through those sections, or quickly read them in an effort to get to the next good part, that is to say the story. And I say this as someone who read all of A Feast for Crows, the fourth book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series…
If you’re looking for a good read about the struggle for survival against highly stacked odds, and a great story with some humor thrown in for good measure, then by all means pick up The Martian. It’s one thing to be stuck on an island or in a desert somewhere on Earth. It’s a totally different story when you’re stuck on another planet. Just be ready to get a few lessons in physics, math, and science in the process.