Saturday, 8 October 2016

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

Book cover of The Martian by Andy Weir
I don't know how to start this review.

I read a book! It has science and space ships and disproportionate responses to hardship! Let's talk about that.

Plot summary: 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 while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive — and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long 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 isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills — and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit — he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

I bought this book as a result of a quick flick whilst standing in a charity shop (and also, it was £1.49 - that helps too). It looked like an interesting read; a bit sciencey but with what looked to be a lot of pop culture references thrown in to keep it light. I saw references to Poirot, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Bee-Gees... it looked quite fun. A bit quirky, maybe.

Nope. This book is very heavy with the science-shovelling. I'm sure it's correct science (actually, I'm not sure in the slightest but it bothers me not), however, it really does over-balance the story horrifically.

So we start out and Mark has essentially just been stranded on Mars with little equipment and enough food to last 400 or so 'sols' (an earth day plus an extra thirty minutes). Oh dear. So Mark has to re-jig the oxygenator, the filters, the... other stuff to support him longer than was originally intended, whilst attempting to contact Earth and also grow potatoes in a desolate, dust-ridden wasteland. Fine. But how he does this is told in excruciating detail that, to be honest, I just didn't understand.

I've tried to draft that sentence in a way that doesn't make me sound stupid, but it's the truth - I didn't understand. I don't know if it's because I admittedly didn't try very hard to understand, or I just didn't care... but either way, I still have no idea how Mark Watney stayed alive on Mars other than 'grew potatoes, created water and fixed stuff.'

Every twenty hours, I'll have 10 liters of CO2 thanks to the MAV fuel plant. I'll vent it into the Hab via the highly scientific method of detaching the tank from the MAV landing struts, bringing it into the Hab, then opening the valve until it's empty.
The oxygenator will turn it into oxygen in its own time.
Then I'll release hydrazine, very slowly, over the iridum catalyst, to turn it into N2 and H2. I'll direct the hydrogen to a small area and burn it.
As you can see, this plan provides me with plenty of opportunities to die in a fiery explosion.
I have a Masters in Biotechnology Law and a Graduate Certificate of Engineering and I still had to google a GCSE revision site to figure why the above = potential explosion.

The pop culture references that pulled me in aren't really present. Mark just rifles his colleagues' computers for music and TV shows to alleviate the boredom and makes a few quick comments about what he's found. I do like the tone of the book - Mark's voice is very dry as he mocks his situation and tries to thwart the many new and surprising ways in which Mars is trying to kill him.

On that note, there's just no emotion here. He never seems particularly bothered about the fact that he's stuck on Mars and he isn't all that fussed about the prospect of rescue either. No sense of terror, achievement, anxiety... nothing. I mean, this could be explained away by the fact that he's writing all this onto a computer log that he's aware might be published one day, but still. I found it very difficult to care about what happened to him as a result. How can I care when he doesn't!?

The way The Martian is structured works quite well. It's primarily Mark's log, as I said before, so it's told in the first person perspective. After about a quarter of the way through, we start to get the third person perspective of the individuals on the ground at NASA as they realised what's happened and try and put a plan together to save Mark. I actually liked their perspective more. It was more real, more emotional and a lot more interesting than a guy in a desert sarcastically lecturing me about potatoes. Honestly, if the entire book were that, I would have been happier. There were even a few 'gasp!' moments. I mean, I gasped. I assumed Mark just shrugged and raised an eyebrow.

Sigh. Alright then, it's time. This is the crux of it. This is the mean reason why I didn't like this book and you're all going to hate me. My boyfriend is going to wave his little black flag sadly, the way he always does when I'm being Unreasonably Cynical, and also Why Do You Hate The World, Hanna.

I just don't buy it. In this book, NASA (and the Chinese government and several other organisations around the world) spend tens of billions of dollars trying to rescue this one man and I would argue, logically and rationally, that that is not particularly proportionate. Planned launches that would have advanced science were delayed, the lives of other astronauts were risked, taxpayers' money was wasted... for one person. I'm not saying they should have left him to die and waved merrily from distant Earth, but come on. There has to be a point where you draw the line and back off a little. What would bringing him back achieve, other than a warm fuzzy feeling? Would it achieve as much as all that money, resources and manpower could have, otherwise? Would it!?*

The world united in desperation over Mark Watney; there was a 'Mark Watney Segment' daily on CNN... Really though? Fine, people would have been appalled to begin with, but this book takes place over several years. There is no way, no way, that one person's plight could sustain the public interest for that long. I know it's fictional, but it genuinely annoyed me how I was supposed to root for NASA to rescue Mark when, actually... well. Proportionality and all that. 

I didn't hate The Martian, but I was disappointed. It was too fact-heavy and too lacking in emotion, and had an irritating main character of whose rescue I was not particularly in favour. I might give the film a go, but it's unlikely I'll feel the need to read this again.

*No. It would not.

Read a more balanced review of The Martian at Girl Plus Book.


  1. Everything you've said is everything that I was afraid of. I've had this on my Kindle for years and I've never been super inclined to pick it up because I would be the first person to admit that I am not especially gifted in the understanding science department. Also because I'm not super into space-based stories usually. I was persuaded to get it by everybody telling me how funny it was but then I bottled it and now I'm almost sure that was the right thing to do. I might read it one day but...*shrug*

  2. Josh really likes it because of all the science, I'm not that keen to read it myself as it does seem a bit too hard sci-fi for my liking but I enjoyed the film. I guess what I got from the film was that leaving an astronaut behind was a massive PR nightmare and NASA were worried about future funding. Maybe I made that bit up though. China also wanted to seem like the god guys for once.

    Anyway the film is good fun and has loads of disco music in it.


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