Opening sentences can often make or break a book, especially one by an unknown author. A great first line will suck the reader in immediately and keep the pages turning right through to the end. A poor one, on the other hand, can have the reader close the book before the first page is finished. “I’m pretty much fucked,” the line that kickstarts Andy Weir’s debut novel The Martian, falls into the great category.
On October 2nd, the much anticipated movie version of this book hits the big screen. Starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott, The Martian movie certainly has the right star power and provenance to do right by The Martian book. I’m quite excited about this movie which I realize is a dangerous thing to say with respect to movie adaptations of beloved books, but The Martian is very film-friendly so if Scott can keep his artistic ego in check and not screw with the story too much it should be a good one. My fingers are crossed, though regardless of the success or failure of the movie, you really need to read this book.
The Martian by Andy Weir, aside from being a terrific novel, is also a great rags-to-riches tale of a rejected writer who finds superstardom through self-publishing. Having been unsuccessful selling previous books to agents, Weir chose to publish The Martian as a serial online for free. Fans encouraged the creation of a Kindle version which quickly became an Amazon best-seller finally attracting interest among publishers. Such success stories are the carrot dangling before the snouts of thousands of inspired, amateur writers the world over. What makes this book particularly special compared to similar literary legends like Fifty Shades of Grey is that The Martian is actually a quality book worthy of the feat.
Without giving too much away, The Martian is the story of astronaut Mark Watney who is abandoned on Mars having been presumed dead after a severe dust storm and must attempt to stay alive for two years until a rescue ship can save him. It is a story of survival, man against nature, made all the more poignant as we inch ever closer to manned missions to the red planet. This imminent reality gives the book a tantalizing taste of non-fiction potential that makes this science fiction tale far more accessible to readers than more exotic, futuristic fare. Coupled with the technically accurate science that propels this well-paced adventure, the book manages to thrill the reader without the insult to intelligence commonplace is a lot of adventure science fiction. This was a welcome surprise for me as was the novelty of having a geologist in command of a space ship, something that gave this former geologist’s ego a welcome stroke.
The book does, regrettably, have a couple shortcomings that don’t necessarily ruin the story but do manage to negate some of the realism the hard science so deftly added. The primary of these, in my opinion, is the utter lack of any psychological failings for the Watney character. I realize he’s an astronaut, presumably an incredibly intelligent and mentally stable human chosen for the long, arduous Mars missions after exhaustive testing, but you’d have to think being stranded on Mars would trouble even the most rock-solid hero just a little bit. Even a John Wayne-MacGyver-Captain Kirk hybrid would have at least one moment of weakness would he not? This is a seriously traumatic situation and yet Mark remains jovial and sane, even cracking jokes, the entire time he’s stranded on Mars. The lack of any doubt or breakdown, even if temporary, struck me as a serious failing of an otherwise entertaining book. Adding some “will he go mad?” drama to all the “will this jury-rigged contraption work?” drama would have enhanced an already riveting read.
There’s also the eagerness of the Chinese to help out which, frankly, seemed a bit of a stretch. Perhaps I’m too cynical but I just can’t see things unfolding as depicted in the book bearing in mind the current state of geopolitical relationships. Considering that in Chris Hadfield’s non-fictional account of life on the International Space Station we learn that NASA astronauts are not supposed to enter the Russian portions of the ISS, let alone “drive” the Soyuz rockets, the idea that the Chinese would happily postpone their own projects to help a stranded American is a touch optimistic. Hey, I hope I’m wrong if this ever unfolds in real life.
Otherwise, this is a terrific book and I enjoyed it a great deal. I give it 4 out of 5 Baby Dill Pickles and highly recommend it to science fiction fans and non-sci fi fans alike. It’s a good adventure story set in the not-to-distant future that is both enjoyable and believable. The Martian is a wonderful accomplishment for Andy Weir and well worth your time to read and I hope to hell the movie lives up to the hype.