It is not often that a book about a man stranded on Mars could take place just about anywhere – but The Martian by Andy Weir could. In The Martian we meet Mark Watney the only man left on Mars due to a freak accident and misunderstanding. But this is merely a setup for a battle between Man and the elements of Mars. And if anyone stands a chance it’s Watney – the engineer of the space crew that abandoned him. The book does not shy away from the engineering nitty gritty and extremely specific technological problems that Watney faces, devices and crudely jokes about.
A plot description beyond “Watney is quippy. Also, in mortal danger. All the time” eludes me. It sounds boring to say that the first 100 pages or so almost solely deal with him establishing a potato farm in space. We hear a lot about how he carries soil from outside and mixes it with his poop. But the story manages to maintain a tension and a level of believability so that that was actually my favorite part. The dairy entries of Watney are broken by an intricate look into the bureaucracy of NASA on Earth when they discover that Watney is not, as presumed, dead, but in fact very much alive. NASA has to figure out a way to save Watney – Watney has to stay alive until they do so.
It’s got all the makings of a sci-fi, but it trips over Watney’s “personality” and falls face flat into another technical specification of the weldings of different types of alloy. Watner never falters, never despairs that he is all alone; he merely trudges on writing and describing endless tales of taking this spout of that thing or burning this thing to make that thing.
The premise of “only man left alive” is an interesting one that carries questions of humanity and solitude or what it means to be a society. Instead Watney pushes against the despair with humor. I may be reading too much into it to say that it is a mask, but I wanted him to despair, to break down. I wanted him go against the edge of his own humanity. Instead I got a thousand one-liners like this:
“The screen went black before I was out of the airlock. Turns out the “L” in “LCD” stands for “Liquid.” I guess it either froze or boiled off. Maybe I’ll post a consumer review. “Brought product to surface of Mars. It stopped working. 0/10.”
The book was certainly entertaining. I read the book in a day and I enjoyed it, but for such a cool premise the book really could have been so much more; it read more like a geek’s orgasm over technology. I kept reading to find that edge, the edge that would finally test him. Trapped in a sandstorm in the middle of Mars? Quippy jokes for the satelites. Spend all day carrying heavy-ass space rocks? Quip-quip. Nearly lose all your food supplies and awake from the edge of death? Quip, quip, quip. It lost credibility.
“The chemistry is on my side. the question now is how do I actually make this reaction happen slowly, and how do I collect the hydrogen? The answer is: I don’t know.
I suppose I’ll think of something. Or die.”
Several times I was sure he was going to die. I wanted him to; I wanted to see this intelligent, infallible man at the very end. I wanted the character to break so that I could look at the fight for survival and wonder whether it is worth it. I wanted to see into the core of humanity. Instead I got another tedious quip.
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