In college, I dated a graduate student in aerospace engineering. We didn’t have much in common, but we both could agree that Apollo 13 was a fantastic movie. I remember he once told me that he fantasized about the moment in the movie in which the NASA engineering team is charged with discovering a way to fit together the command module’s square CO2 scrubber with the Lunar Module’s circular scrubbing apparatus before the CO2 rose to toxic levels. He would have loved, he told me, to be part of that team. If you have similar feelings, then I have the book for you.
The highlight of The Martian is the depth with which Andy Weird describes each technical challenge astronaut Mark Watney faces as he attempts to stay alive on Mars after being mistakenly abandoned there by his fellow astronauts. In the novel, NASA runs a successful and well-funded space program that sends astronauts to Mars on research missions once every four years. Their technology allows for a roomy Hab tent in which the astronauts live, several rovers with pop tents, and a few other tools and technologies the astronauts can use to conduct their mission. These are what Watney must use to survive.
The premise of the story is obviously stellar, and Weir delivers on it. I found the technical detail of Watney’s trials incredibly engaging. Maybe it’s the space nerd in me, but I couldn’t put the book down during his initial stages of water generation, potato farming, and rover modifications.
But then the book switched gears and presented a window into what was happening over on Earth. Weir introduces us to the men and women at NASA and JPL that are trying desperately to communicate with Watney and keep him alive. And here is where the book falls flat on its face. The characters are incredibly wooden, barely described, and nauseatingly cliché. We’re barely given enough detail to really know or understand any of the characters in the book other than Watney, and the detail we are given is utterly sophomoric.
I get it, the book is going for some campiness–something that I think we are expected to accept given that it’s science fiction. I just think it goes a bit too far at certain points, and I think this is largely due to Weir’s shortcomings as an author. If I’m going to accept campiness as a reader I need to be led into it correctly. Too often, as with the “Gay probe coming to save me,” line from Watney–one of the worst moments of dialogue in the book–I felt as though the fourth wall was being broken and instead of listening to the characters talk to each other I was seeing Weir’s though process as he tried inject a certain amount of humor/suspense/adventurousness into the novel. Simply put: the writing just isn’t that good.
Having said that, when the writing fails the story definitely makes up for it. Despite my gripes, I found myself glued to the novel right through its rollicking, Wild West ending. I have to grudgingly say that if space exploration fills you with a raw sense of excitement, you’ll enjoy this book.