The Martian

Thoughts on Andy Weir's The Martian

When I was a little boy, I wanted to be an astronaut.  Well, first I wanted to be a fire truck but then astronaut.  As I grew older, it became clear that my brain is not wired for the maths so my toddler dream of becoming an astronaut was quickly scrubbed.  Space exploration still fascinates me from a dreamer’s perspective and this is probably why I appreciate science fiction and speculative fiction so much.

I imagine the pitch room logline for Andy Weir’s debut novel The Martian probably was:  Robinson Crusoe on Mars.  Then the publisher said something about there already being a movie with that title and the agent deftly redirected with a “yeah, but…” statement.

Like Robinson Crusoe, this is a survival story.  An accident leaves astronaut Mark Watney stranded alone on Mars.  Even on Earth, where we have all of the breathable atmosphere we need, people die when stranded in unfamiliar territory.  Either they lack the skills, the intelligence, or the willpower to survive.  Mark Watney possesses all three in abundance.  Despite numerous setbacks (I could swear Watney was being followed around by Joe Btfsplk), he has to use his vast NASA brain to figure out solutions to problems that would probably kill anyone else.

Watney’s story is told via first person journal entries.  Normally, I do not care for diary/journal-style narrative, but I liked this over a first person continuous narrative because it caused me to wonder if I, as the reader, could possibly be playing the role of a person reading the posthumous account of Watney’s life on Mars.  During each event, I was left to wonder if this was the obstacle that would kill him.  Watney is a brilliant man, but Mars is a hostile environment.  After all, how many disasters can one man survive before his luck runs out?  Andy Weir's use of the journal-style narrative effectively increases the tension.

Mark Watney is a fun, likable character.  He possesses genius-level intelligence, but talks like a regular person.  When he describes the science of what he is doing, he does it in a conversational way, as though he is talking to a group of normals at a cocktail party.  I worried that The Martian would be too hard SF for me, but Andy Weir’s and thus Mark Watney’s skill at describing brainy science hoopie-doo in a way even a nit like me could understand was much appreciated.  Watney also possesses a wonderful sense of humor.  He’d have to, I suppose, to be able to maintain mental stability during such an ordeal.  I would probably lose my mind and panic.  This guy starts ruminating on 70s television while trying to figure out how to grow potatoes in space.  I rooted for him.  I desperately wanted him to live because the world needs more people like him.

The Martian is a great adventure story.  I enjoyed every page and look forward to Andy Weir’s next book.  My mom liked it, too.  I bought a copy for her and we read it together.  She is generally more of a contemporary fiction – Grisham, Patterson, Robb – kind of gal, but she raved about The Martian and about Andy Weir's excellent storytelling.

While I am still not an astronaut, my current vocation does involve lots of math.  I mean, like, I do complex calculations on paper with a pencil and stuff.  It is nothing like what astronauts have to do just to empty their space toilet though, so I’ll continue living vicariously through speculative fiction, especially when it is as good as Andy Weir’s The Martian.