We’ve talked about this novel on our podcast, so if you’re reading this and haven’t watched go do that right now (here’s the link).
The Martian is, as I’ve read elsewhere, a great debut novel. And although that’s clearly a backwards compliment (why isn’t it just a great novel?) it fits here. It’s clunky and beset with false conflict. But it’s also a volcano of scientific justifications, spewing at the reader damn near every page. It’s beautiful to watch Weir weave these around and into plot, though at times they can drown a reader in nomenclature. This isn’t a textbook, after all.
The novel follows astronaut Mark Watney, a sarcastic ass of a botanist who also roots for the Chicago Cubs. He’s left for dead and stranded on Mars when the rest of his crew hightails it off the Red Planet before a particularly nasty storm hits. Left with nothing but his wits (and several billion dollars of state-of-the-art NASA equipment) Watney struggles to survive against an overwhelming probability of death.
Published by Crowne in 2014, the novel first found life as a series on the author’s own website and then as a series of Amazon Kindle singles. You can see that. Each chapter doesn’t necessarily flow into the next, rather, Weir uses a succession of tiresome cliff hangers. These may have worked in the single format, when the reader couldn’t be sure how much longer this story would last. This formula doesn’t work in a novel. Instead, it frustrates. Fool me once or twice, maybe, but the fourth time I’m not amused. I’m holding the book in my hands. I know there’s 200 pages left.
It’s this false conflict that hurts what is otherwise a page-turning, fast-food of a novel. Readers are treated to a series of minor conflicts Weir writes melodramatically. Yes, a hero needs to overcome adversity, but adversity must build upon itself. The stakes must rise, at least relatively. The Martian is a story about a man who will either live or die (it’s also about leaving the planet, but that’s taken part and parcel with the survival aspect). But we don’t feel as though he’s ever in any real trouble because everything resets: Watney comes up with a clever way to do something while overlooking something critical and, in hindsight, obvious. Things go wrong, until he figures it out and comes up with a new solution. Rise, repeat.
By the time readers reach the climax (no spoilers here) they’re tired and untrusting of Weir. We’ve been conditioned to know better. It ruins the drama.
TL;DR: Will Mark Watney make it home alive after he’s stranded on Mars?
Verdict: A frustrating story peppered with good bits of NASA-flavored trivia. Did I mention we made a podcast about this?