I’m a wannabe science nerd. I love listening to Neil Degrasse Tyson’s podcast, I’ve made an attempt at reading Stephen Hawking, and I actually know more constellations than just the Big Dipper. The problem is I suck at science. I wish I had actually put more effort in during high school (said everyone ever) and tried to learn more of this stuff if only so I understood it better today.
This is part of the reason why I enjoy books like The Martian. It’s packed with all kinds of science-y goodness, including astronomy, chemistry, a little physics, and even some botany (in a Martian context, of course). There’s enough science here to keep me feeling smart and plenty of story to keep me entertained.
Oh, right, the STORY. I should tell you about that.
The Martian is the story of one Mark Watney, a mechanical engineer/botanist assigned to Mars Mission Ares 3 (in this book we’ve been to Mars three times already). Everything’s going great for Mark and crew when a freak accident happens knocking Mark unconscious in the middle of a violent dust storm. His crew, thinking him dead, evacuates Mars and heads home, leaving Mark stranded on Mars with no communications and enough food to last him a year. The rest of the book is him working out how he’s going to survive, get in touch with NASA, and maybe even get off Mars.
It’s a simple plot, but that’s all you need. The story flows between characters (yes, there’s more than one) by way of different formats, focusing primarily on Mark’s log entries during his time on Mars, his communications with NASA by way of a Rover computer, and actual conversation (I don’t know the literary terms for what I’m describing, so help me out if you do!). Weir does a great job not sticking to one specific format for too long as well, keeping you focused on one character long enough before you get bored.
As I mentioned above, there’s a LOT of science in this book. Weir himself is one huge science nerd, and it shows. Mark details his plans for survival in a very thought-out manner, explaining chemical processes and mechanical structures like I would expect an engineer to do, but he doesn’t do it to the point where you get lost in the weeds. He thinks like an astronaut is trained to think, and it makes me realize that I am NOT cut out to be an astronaut. Huge respect to the men and women on the ISS right here, man. You guys are FAR more intelligent than I.
What surprised me was how not philosophical this novel was. I expected it to be a lot of morose reflection on loneliness and existence. I mean, that’s what I’d do if I were stranded on a desert island, let alone Mars. Weir doesn’t even touch the stuff! There’s one point where NASA has figured out Mark’s alive, and one of the directors is marveling at the situation, saying, “I wonder what’s going through his mind right now.” Cut to Mark’s log: “How does Aquaman have the ability to control whales? They’re mammals! That doesn’t even make sense!” This sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Mark’s too busy surviving to be bothered by existential angst. He might touch on it for a sentence or two, just to say “I’d give anything to talk to a human being right now,” then get back to whatever it was he was doing. He never dwells on it, and I think that makes for an excellent piece of character development. Mark is the kind of guy who’d rather respond to difficulty with humor and soldier on through the pain, rather than getting stuck in the reflective mud of loneliness, and that works.
Overall, excellent work, Andy Weir. I could not put this book down!