Published by Crown on Feb. 11, 2014 (hardcover)
Genres: Science Fiction
Source: the library
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Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he's sure he'll be the first person to die there.
After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate the planet while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded on Mars' surface, completely alone, with no way to signal Earth that he’s alive — and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone years before a rescue could arrive.
Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to kill him first. But Mark's not ready to quit. Armed with nothing but his ingenuity and his engineering skills — and a gallows sense of humor that proves to be his greatest source of strength – he embarks on a dogged quest to stay alive, using his botany expertise to grow food and even hatching a mad plan to contact NASA back on Earth.
As he overcomes one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next, Mark begins to let himself believe he might make it off the planet alive – but Mars has plenty of surprises in store for him yet.
Grounded in real, present-day science from the first page to the last, yet propelled by a brilliantly ingenious plot that surprises the reader again and again, The Martian is a truly remarkable thriller: an impossible-to-put-down suspense novel that manages to read like a real-life survival tale.
The Martian is one of those stories you literally can’t put down. The basic “McGyver-marooned-on-Mars” scenario combines with one disaster or setback after another to make for riveting reading. Weir’s main character, Mark Watney, displays an engaging mix of humor, courage, and tenacity. And Weir even manages to make the science not only comprehensible but also interesting — no mean feat when the book covers everything from human waste reclamation to exofarming to space travel to chemistry.
However, the whole novel could do with a little more description and quite a bit more character development. You get some sense of some of the important secondary characters, but only a superficial one. Even Watney, whom we know best since he narrates much of the book through log entries, can be defined by several characteristics, inventive, smart, stubbornly determined, and wise-cracking being the most important. Those characteristics remain unchanged from the beginning to the end of the book; he’s a likeable and admirable person, but he experiences no real growth despite a situation that, realistically, <i>must</i> have had some impact on him mentally and emotionally, whether for good or ill (or both.)
The focus on plot and problem-solving over character depth and development is deliberate, Weir stated in a talk at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (YouTube), and it hearkens back to the classic science fiction of his childhood. Indeed it does; I was reminded more than once of Heinlein and Asimov as I read. Yet Heinlein did more to develop his characters than Weir does, and his blending of science and human interaction is what made him my favorite of the classic SF authors in my own youth.
Despite my personal preference for deeper characters, I must admit that Weir tells a heck of a good story. I plowed through The Martian in a single evening, in part because I knew I’d be seeing the movie the next day, but mostly because Weir’s pacing is so good. He knows exactly when to throw yet another stumbling block or disaster into Watney’s path — or into NASA’s, since Watney’s narrative is interspersed with third-person chapters showing what NASA and Watney’s crewmates are doing to rescue him. I kept thinking as I read that it would make a terrific movie.
* * *
And of course, it does. Drew Goddard’s screenplay and some fine acting from the entire cast help to flesh out the characters, making it easier for me to care about the secondary characters. Matt Damon is brilliant as Watney, giving him more depth than Weir’s character through his facial expressions and body language, and letting us see him change in subtle ways as the weeks and months go on.
The film’s technology is incredibly realistic and quite believable. Like Weir, the filmmakers tried hard to get the science right, modeling much of the technology on existing NASA hardware as well as stuff currently in development. (There are a few exceptions to the “get the science right” rule of thumb, as Weir himself admits. The huge storm at the beginning could not be that strong in the real Martian atmosphere, for instance, but he needed it to kick the story off. And he didn’t know when he was writing the book that water would be discovered in the Martian soil.)
The film is also remarkably true to the book. Some sections have been condensed and one, a dust storm that Watney has to drive around for weeks, has been left out entirely, presumably because it would prove boring on film, but on the whole, it’s very faithful to Weir’s text, right down to much of the dialog (or monologue, in Watney’s case) — though scriptwriter Goddard adds a few memorable lines of his own. The script also develops the interspersed scenes on the Hermes spaceship and on Earth, and it alters the climax in a way which makes it both more dramatic and more satisfying without changing the essence of the scene. (I don’t want to give anything away, but it just works better, bringing two characters full circle, in a sense.)
Where the film departs most obviously from the book, though, is in supplying an epilogue. I think the epilogue is crucial to the movie’s overall impact; it grounds the characters and the audience, figuratively if not literally, showing how their stories — and that of space exploration itself — continue. In bringing the astronauts home, it brings the viewer back to earth; in looking forward, it makes us look forward as well.
I’m sure that audiences who haven’t read the book will still enjoy the movie, but I’m really glad that I read it immediately before seeing the film. Since the film had to condense some of the science out of necessity, it was helpful to have the explanations clear in my head, and it made it easier to compare the two. What made it so much fun, of course, is that both book and movie take a terrific story and tell it well.
CHALLENGE: Popsugar #3: A book that became a movie.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- PopSugar 2015 Reading challenge