The Martian, by Andy Weir, is an entertaining page-turner with an inherently interesting premise and a well-executed plot. Aside from entertainment, the novel’s chief value lies in its celebration of cheerful resourcefulness, and its appreciation of the worth of a single human life. Good in several important ways, the book also lacked some of the depth that its premise might have supported.
In a near-future mission to Mars, an accident forces the astronaut crew of the Hermes to leave behind an apparently dead colleague, Mark Watney. As it happens, Mark survived the accident, in consequence of which he finds himself stranded on the surface of Mars with a supply of food and water that is destined to run out soon, and no way to communicate this to NASA. Defying the overwhelming odds, Mark Watney will draw upon his knowledge of engineering, botany, and sarcasm to keep death at bay.
Everyone who reads The Martian will notice Mark Watney’s resourceful ingenuity, and his sarcastic brand of constructive cheerfulness. Weir’s protagonist is constantly put in situations without apparent solutions, but he manages to find solutions anyway. Not all of the crises have an equal sense of weight, but, because he’s on Mars, each crisis, without quick-thinking, must eventually lead to his death. Accordingly, the book is structured as a series of escalating survival episodes, mostly narrated in the first person as Mark Watney’s log entries. Like a MacGyver in space, Mark Watney knows how to make something out of almost nothing, and how to keep his peace and humor while doing so. Many readers will enjoy the escalating crises, Mark’s whizz-bang solutions, and his entertaining personality, all of which help to keep him alive long enough to give Earth’s governments a shot at rescuing him. These features make for a fun read, though one with a certain lack of depth. Like the dust blown about the surface of the Red Planet, The Martian often feels thin and unsubstantial.
One could complain, for example, about the plot’s extremely predictable structure, which looks something like this:
Watney: Wow, this is great, everything is wonderful now, because I [science speak, science speak, science speak]ed the Nitrogen, and tweaked the Oxygen reclaimers. So now all I have to do is put on my dance pants and watch awful reruns of Three’s Company!
~ Next Chapter ~
Watney: $&#%! I’m dead. There will be no tomorrow, folks! So much for 70’s disco and stayin’ alive!
~ Next Chapter ~
Watney: It looks like it’s going to be okay. I forgot that the rover has a rust detector, and, as everyone knows, rust detectors always come equipped with [science speak…]
Of course, these ups and downs are part of the book’s draw. Just when things seem finally to be going smoothly, disaster is just around the corner. On the other hand, the reverse is also true: nothing is ever as bad as it seems. Watney repeatedly demonstrates that panic is useless, and despair, uneccessary. If the novel could be boiled down to a single lesson or adage, it might be as follows: When there’s nothing you can do, try. Of course, it helps to have a fair amount of science knowledge, without which it’s a little difficult to follow — and thus appreciate — many of his solutions.
A reader might also object to the overuse of rough language. While one might defend using rough language for the sake of realism, or to show a character’s personality, or for the sake of humor, it’s easy to reach a point of diminishing returns here. Rough language and bawdy humor is strongest when it’s only occasionally used. Then it retains its shock value and emotional resonance. Watney drops the F-bomb too often, and it makes him look weak and even immature, qualities that militate against the cheerful resourcefulness that seems to be his abiding trait.
Overuse of rough language is not the book’s only misstep; it also lacks thematic depth. Weir provides himself excellent opportunities to reflect on man, his place in the universe, God, and life, but fails to drill deeply in any of these areas. Not that he’s afraid to drop these things in as seasoning, but, it’s just that these elements are never anything more than thematic spice. Meanwhile, the vast, meditative silence of the Red Planet is left entirely untouched. A few moments of reflective contemplation against this alien backdrop would have deepened both the story and the character, without taking away from its humor or excitement. Indeed, the characters who are supposed to be among the most intelligent people in society were all a little too crass and pragmatic for my taste.
Still, the book ought to be judged by what it is, a fun survival story, rather than what it isn’t, literary science fiction. Despite being chock full of what are presumably accurate science-facts, the book is pure escapism. Its chief “purpose” is to tell a good yarn against a realistic, near-future backdrop, and to keep its readers entertained and on the edge of their seats. In this it truly succeeds. Aside from the occasionally strong language, and some suggestive speech, there isn’t much to which a thrill-seeking reader would object. It has no axe grind, no political ideologies to force-feed. The Martian is essentially a feel-good adventure story with a wide appeal where the stakes are high, but somehow happiness prevails. It’s more crass than it should be, but readers who can put up with the language will enjoy the journey.
- Mark Watney is constantly cracking jokes. Aside from the entertainment value, what does Mark’s sense of humor tell us about his moral character and his personality? Does this suggest to you any strategies for living well?
- Martinez’s crucifix provided Watney with one of the essential elements necessary for survival? The same Martinez later counsels Lewis to “believe in Mark Watney.” Do you detect any intention on the author’s part to discuss the importance of “belief?”
- Along the previous lines, can Mark Watney’s practical actions, taken as they are against extremely improbable odds, be seen as a species of belief? Perhaps belief in taking small, practical steps to better one’s situation? What, if anything, has this to do with religious belief?
- How does Mark’s hard work and ingenious use of the available resources (that is, the gifts or unearned materials that are simply lying about) help us to reflect on the relationship between work and gift, on a natural level? What is the relationship between gratitude and effort?