Because all of life is stories.
You know what’s funny? Anti-matter and discount store ninjas. A little over a decade ago I stumbled on a little webcomic called Casey and Andy. The first strip was innocent enough. Andy was juggling, dropped a ball into a box of antimatter, and boom, Casey isn’t speaking to Andy while waiting at the gates of St. Peter. I was enamored with the lunacy and interesting “science” of the strip. Six or so years ago, the strip came to an end, and I mourned. And as far as I knew strip author and artist Andy Weir disappeared into the void. Turns out, he was hard at work.
I came across Weir again just a few months ago, when another webcomic artist and writer reviewed Weir’s debut novel, calling it “Bar none, the best hard science fiction I’ve ever read.” Lofty praise from someone I consider one of the leading authorities on “What I Should Be Reading.” With recommendation and past experience with Weir in hand, I excitedly ran to my local bookstore and gleefully purchased a copy, fully aware that my expectations shouldn’t be nearly this high. So were they met? Or, like with so many other things, were my hopes dashed against the rocks like breaking waves?
From the first line in Weir is subscribing to a formula that authors have been using since the beginning of time. That most common name for this formula is “late in, early out.” It means that most scenes are entered in late enough that the action is already tense, and we leave the scene early enough to prevent what we see from becoming boring. And right from the beginning, we’re in the action. We meet Marc as he lies dying on Mars. The only reason he hasn’t so far is that the blood leaving his body froze to the outside of his spacesuit and made an airtight seal. We quickly see Marc go from “Oh God I’m alone on Mars I am seventeen kinds of dead” to “You know, this might be crazy enough to work.”
Watney finds inventive ways to stretch his supplies to the brink. He figures out how to make liquid water out of hydrogen gas. He figures out a way to send a signal back to Earth despite not having a working radio or satellite dish. Through it all he cracks wise and dutifully logs the entire thing so that even if he kicks it on Mars, another crew might find his body and hear his last words.
My biggest criteria for giving a book a rating is this: Did I have fun while reading it, or did I slog through the pages and often put it down to do something more interesting? For fun, The Martian passes with flying colors. I love Watney and all of the ridiculous science he has to conjure out of thin air (Ha, space puns.) He’s cast as a down to Earth (or Mars) everyman that we would all enjoy having a beer with. Truth be told, he’s a bit of a Mary Sue. The term is used to describe a character who is just a little bit too perfect, just a little bit too super-powered and good at everything. Usually these characters throw us out of a story, because we never really feel that they are in danger. They’re too good at everything and too sympathetic to be hurt. But in this case, that works. We know that the second Mark makes a mistake he’s dead. At all times there is usually nothing more than a thin layer of plastic of fabric between him and the uncaring surface of Mars, and subsequently a quick and painful death. But his smart ass attitude and the belief that he knows enough to survive anything helps us root for him. He keeps the heavier material (rocket science, botany, a cold and lonely death on Mars) balanced out by his wisecracking and unbreakable spirit. I read this in one marathon nine hour session. And I was never bored when Watney was getting page time. I’ve read that there were readers annoyed by Watney’s style of speaking/mission logging, that his jokes fell flat. I can see how some people might think that. I think they were dead on, especially for the nerdy kind of guy Watney is. (He’s a botanist and engineer working for NASA. He’s a nerd.)
I mentioned before that the review I read of this book named it “the best hard science fiction I’ve ever read.” Which means at some level, the science in the book just has to work out in real life, or at least have a basis in fact. If the amount of handwavium (things the author makes up because they are convenient) is high and the amount of real actual science is low then we’re looking at soft sci-fi or space opera. Not bad genres, but a lot of this book contains math. I’d hope it all stands up. So my next criteria is this: Does Weir’s scientific mumbo jumbo hold water, or is it so much magic? Turns out, Watney’s math and science is all correct, and the things that may not yet be physically possible, he grounds in firm scientific theory, and extrapolates a plausible future. His drafts were run by quite a few scientific minds to make sure all the numbers added up. His father was one such person. He’s a particle physicist. Weir’s book even went to space, soliciting rave reviews and a few helpful suggestions from the likes of Chris Hadfield, Canadian astronaut, YouTube darling, and fellow author. The book even takes place on a real piece of Mars that you can find on a map of the red planet. In fact, Weir provides one for us for some visual reference to his descriptions of the terrain. Not to say that Weir doesn’t bring his own personal expertise to the book. He possesses a background in computer science, which comes in handy when we get a brief lesson in hacking the computer systems of a Mars rover for interplanetary communication.
A big criteria for any book, and one this book relies heavily on, it the characters. Do they seem real? Are they three dimensional or are they cardboard cutouts that only embody standard tropes? Weir here manages to break even. Marc Watney is an incredible character. He’s smart, he’s snarky, he’s resourceful. Every step of the way Watney makes us want to root for him. He’s someone to cheer for. An American hero. And he still shows enough depth to let us know that he’s more than just a stereotype. Sure, he spends most of the time making jokes and insulting his crewmates taste in music. He also is utterly practical. The scientist in him needs to be. He also is startlingly reflective. There are somber moments. He worries about his parents. He worries that his crew will never stop blaming themselves. Watney provides a surprising amount of heart that I never expected when I went into this book.
This is appropriate, because nobody else was about to provide any. Maybe I’m being a little rough. Watney gets about seventy-five percent of the book all to himself. Of course he’s going to be a more fleshed out character. But the rest of them are pretty much plug and play. Preassembled. No real depth. There’s a familiar cast including favorites such as “The Intern That Finds Something Everyone Else Misses”, “The In-Your-Face Public Relations Rep”, “The Old Grizzled Flight Director Who Doesn’t See His Wife Much”, “The Lone Wolf Nerd That Knows More Than Everyone”, and “The Commander Who Spends Too Much Time Punishing Herself.” All the pieces work and put together a compelling story, but they’re all very obvious people. I don’t really care about them. It would be nice to have a more diverse and fleshed out range of characters in his next book. So a great main character with some iffy secondary ones gives him a score of break-even.
So. We’ve got all of our numbers crunched. It’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys. In SPACE. Is that really all that we should base Weir’s debut attempt on though? The jacket design is lovely. It’s got the requisite amount of book smell. (Mine anyways, your requisite amount may vary.) The price isn’t bad either. I feel like I’m making this book out to be perfect. Let’s face it. It isn’t. No book is. The first POV (point-of-view) change is pretty jarring. Up until the fiftieth or so page I had no idea that the book planned on switching out of first person and jolted me out of the story. Same for the switch to the third person omniscient (The narrator knows all, and isn’t necessarily a character) later on in the book. A lot of the events and big shocker moments are telegraphed as well, which sometimes leaves us twiddling our thumbs waiting for the action to come, even though heavy foreshadowing made sure we knew about it twenty pages ago. But you know what? I don’t care. Not one tiny little bit. Know why? Because even though I know the action is coming I still find myself tensing up. Like knowing the murderer is on the other side of the door in a horror movie. You know it’s coming but you still scream or gasp. I’m really nitpicking here. The flaws in the book are mostly minor. Even the larger ones can be forgiven because Heaven above this book is flat out FUN. Books that I don’t like tend to have flaws that stick with me. They rot in the back of my head and ruin the entire experience. But with books I really love, books that I reread every year without fail, the flaws are forgivable. I get around them. The story has me too hooked to really care about the imperfections. If I’m eating steak and lobster cooked to perfection I’m not about to complain about the suboptimal number of ice cubes in my water. The Martian has that “it” factor. It’s engaging. It grabs me by the head and pulls me in to the story. That’s a big bar to jump over. I cared. And I feared. And I cheered and I gasped.
Weir’s first debut novel is far from perfect. But it shows promise. Within The Martian are all pieces of what can make a writer, and a book, great. The prose isn’t exactly powerful, but it hits the right tone. He has it in him to create a compelling set of characters. And the towering amount of research that must have gone into this book proves that Weir is willing and able to put the work in to make a book the best it can be. It takes a lot earn any credit with me when it comes to books. I’ll agonize over which one to buy next. Weir’s managed to earn enough credit that I’ll be picking up his next book regardless of the reviews. It’s the type of book where I can see the movie going into production before next year is out.
What are you waiting for? Go read.