The premise for “The Martian” is very simple. One of the first manned missions to Mars is forced to abort early after a huge storm hits the landing site, most of the crew escape safely but they believe that one of their number, botanist Mark Watney, is dead after being impaled by an antenna, his body lost in the confusion of the storm and the vital signs transmitted by his suit showing nothing. However, Watney does survive the accident but finds himself stranded on Mars with no way of getting to orbit, limited supplies and any potential rescue years away. The obvious comparison is to “Apollo 13” as the resourceful astronaut tries to find a way to survive using limited resources while NASA try to come up with a way of saving him.
“The Martian” is a book that does a lot of things very well and unfortunately does some other things quite poorly. The book is split between journals written by Watney chronicling his life on Mars and third-person scenes shown people back on Earth trying to come up with a way to help him. Watney’s journals are the highlight of the book, despite all the trials he manages to keep his sense of humour which helps to break up the scientific details of how he manages to survive. There are a lot of technical problems to solve along the way and Weir’s writing manages to explain clearly the science behind it without getting bogged down in detail. At first glance the scientific and technical details do seem plausible, I can’t really tell how accurate most of it is but it does manage to sound convincing. Watney experiences a number of setbacks along the way, some of them nearly fatal, and there are some genuinely tense scenes as he has to attempt some extremely dangerous and risky tasks.
Unfortunately, while I thought the chapters from Watney’s logs worked well I didn’t feel that the other scenes back on Earth were as successful. Andy Weir may be good at writing about space exploration or about a tense struggle for survival but he seems to struggle a lot with writing dialogue or characterisation. While there is only one character on Mars there is a much larger cast back on Earth (as well as Watney’s five fellow astronauts heading backing to Earth without any way to help) but Watney is virtually the only interesting character on the book (although I did like the fiery NASA PR manager). The rest of the characterisation feels very shallow, even if those characters aren’t the main focus of the book it does feel like more could have been done with them. The dialogue is clunky and unbelievable and often at its worst when Weir tries to write witty dialogue. While some of the jokes in Watney’s journal are amusing the other attempts at humour seem to fall completely flat and Weir seems to feel the need to explain in detail any pop culture references. Perhaps it’s for the best that Watney’s scenes don’t involve him interacting with any other characters. Watney’s journal entries may not necessarily be particularly eloquent but at least his writing does have a distinctive voice. His journals don’t seem to show a lot of emotional range beyond occasional outbreaks of terror or despondency, but perhaps this is realistic since I suspect Watney might realistically censor some of his thoughts knowing they’d be read by NASA later.
It’s a pity that some of the writing is so clunky because at its core there is a tightly-plotted and compelling story of survival against the odds with plenty of highs and lows along the way. It’s definitely worth reading despite its flaws but I feel with some improvements this could have been a great book rather than a reasonably good one.
Rating : 7 / 10