Friday, April 9, 2021

"The Martian" by Andy Weir--Fiction Review

Like with my “Red Rising” review, let’s return to Mars, obscurists! Today I’m talking about Andy Weir’s fantastic hard science fiction novel, “The Martian.” 

Andy Weir

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

“The Martian” might be the greatest hard sci-fi I’ve ever read—sorry, Arthur C. Clarke—because Weir is excellent in a dimension that most authors within the subgenre struggle with, and that’s character development. His protagonist, Mark Watney, isn’t just a guy you’re rooting for but is also really funny along the way—kinda impressive considering the whole being stranded on Mars thing.

Weir goes above and beyond on the technical details of how everything works on a Mars mission, which is what you would expect for this subgenre. Watney has a way of explaining material that could have been presented incredibly dry and makes it interesting in his own mixture of serious yet goofy style.

Clearly, I’m partial to space stuff, and this book is so—so much fun as an interplanetary adventure/survival story. Think “Hatchet” but with an adult and on Mars, which I guess is kinda like saying think, “Robinson Crusoe,” but on Mars—and fun fact “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” is actually a Sci-Fi movie from the 1960s. Anyways, Robinson Crusoe, the literary character, always came off to me as a bit of a dickhead, so I prefer the “Hatchet” but on Mars comparison. In any case, the high concept is: an uncommonly self-reliant person has to use their wits to survive in a hostile environment for a long, long time with limited tools. It’s a story archetype I’ve always liked.  

What I don’t love about this book:

So I’m an audiobook fan—as I’ve mentioned ninety billion times—and I love this book so much I actually own two different audiobook editions of this book. The latest version, and the only one currently available in English on, is read by Wil Wheaton—who I love, yes even when he was Wesley Crusher—I’ve listened to many an audiobook narrated by him. He’s got talent, which makes this next part awkward for me, but R.C. Bray—who read the older edition—did a better job. I think that performance really adds an extra dimension to audiobooks, which is why I like them so much. The fact that unless you already own that version, you can’t buy it today, while it doesn’t impact me personally, still kinda irks me. But who am I to question almighty Amazon.

I have few complaints about the story’s narrative—the pirate-ninjas thing garners a chuckle the first few times you read it but quickly becomes tedious.

I noticed that while Weir’s character work with Mark Watney was excellent, and the NASA administrators/engineers back on Earth were compelling. Mark’s crewmates on the Hermes shined a little duller than the others. Martinez was great, but Dr. Beck and Commander Lewis were OK. Lewis’s big trait is she likes old music, and Dr. Beck is the guy who fell in love with his crewmate, and he’s also the professional other-guy on the team. I’m forgiving of this shortcoming, though, because it’s hard to hit home runs on every single character, especially when there are so many of them. 

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as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The book starts with us reading Mark Watney’s Mars log right after he’s stranded on Mars when the crew had to abort the mission because of a storm. Mark was thought killed in the storm when he was hit by an antenna and lost in the sand. His crew tried their best to find him, but the sensors said his vitals had ceased, and their assent vehicle, and the only way off Mars, was about to tip over in the wind at any moment.

Mark, now trapped on an entire planet by himself, is faced with the task of trying to survive until the next Mars mission. His most pressing problem is food since it will be literally years until anyone arrives at Mars, and he only has a few month’s worth of rations. He addresses the problem by devising a way to use the special thanksgiving rations, which include viable potatoes, to grow more potatoes using martian soil and, let’s say, night soil—that’s a fancy way of saying poop by the by.

Eventually, NASA back on Earth discovers through satellite imagery that Mark isn’t dead and that they left him on Mars. They at first decide to not tell the rest of Mark’s crew, who are still on their way back to Earth, that they left their comrade to die a lonely death on a deserted planet, not wanting to diminish their morale. The NASA engineers and administration start looking for a way to save Mark.

In the meantime, Mark manages to establish communication with Earth by repurposing Pathfinder, an actual probe we sent to Mars. Back in contact with Earth, Mark and NASA start devising a way for him to survive, which is complicated when his habitat breaches, killing his crops. NASA scrambles to send him supplies, which does not work because the rocket explodes. Mark also accidentally destroys Pathfinder’s radio when modifying his rover to make the journey across country to the subsequent Mars mission’s ascent vehicle, which—like with all missions—was sent to Mars early.

However, Mark manages to complete the modifications independently and makes the journey incommunicado to the ascent vehicle. Once there, he manages to make the necessary modifications to the rocket and gets picked up by his crew, who have come back for him after defying NASA’s orders. This was made possible because the Chinese space agency had given NASA another booster. NASA originally wanted to try to use it to send more supplies to Mark with even less time and a higher chance of failure than the one that blew up. But when Mark’s crew—who have learned that he isn’t dead by this point—turned the ship around to go back to Mars, NASA was forced to send the supplies to them. This method had a much higher chance of success, but now that they were committed, the whole crew was at risk. 

It works out, though, and Mark is saved after some more minor complications—fixed with another explosion—a small one—as all good problems are in the end. 


This book is interesting because it breaks from the traditional wisdom of writing in the same consistent tense. Everything that’s happening in the story to Mark Watney happens in the first person as he relates his day in his log, kind of in the same style and feel of “World War Z” the novel, not the movie. The major difference being there is no interviewer, and it’s just him talking about his days. The rest of the character’s stories are relayed in the third person, which is far more traditional. 

There is authenticity to this story because it’s written rather strictly in the mode of a hard science fiction story. The only conceit to all-out fiction is that, while there are sand storms on Mars, pretty regularly too, due to how thin the atmosphere is, there wouldn’t be any chance there would be winds strong enough to knock over a person, let alone a rocket.

As I said in my non-spoiler section, where this book really shines and even outshines books like “Hatchet” and “Robinson Crusoe,” is the character work. It’s sadly pretty atypical for a hard sci-fi to make compelling characters and plots. Usually, they’re so involved in speculation of possible future technology that they neglect all the other aspects of a story. Andy Weir, however, is a gem because he can do both not just passable but exceptionally well.  

Parting thoughts:

This is one of those novels that’s been made into a movie—one that I like a whole lot too—big surprise, I know. My biggest problem with it, though, is commander Lewis gets a big moment at the end at the expense of Beck’s one and only big thing he does in the book—and they even change that thing to be the dumbest possible version of it.

So the movie plays out pretty one-to-one faithful to the novel except for three areas, right after Mark’s crops are killed, his entire journey in the rover gets pretty much cut, and the ending. The trip getting cut, I get, it’s a movie, you have to save time somewhere.

Both right after the crops are destroyed by the breach in the habitat, and when the crew is trying to pick up Mark after his ascent vehicle fails to get high enough, have moments in the book where Weir discusses ideas for solutions. Solutions that the characters in the book conclude are unworkable. The movie uses both of those ideas. With the breach, he uses duct tape, which in the film that’s easy to fudge. It’s easy to imagine a similar situation to the one in the book where duct tape would work.

The final scene, though, where commander Lewis, who is supposed to act as captain, goes out of the ship—stealing Beck’s thunder—to save Mark on her own is dumb. First off, her place is on the bridge coordinating her crew. She is the leader, and her job is to delegate tasks to those who are best able to accomplish them. Speaking of that, second, even in the movie, they mention Beck is the EVA (Extravehicular Activity—it means he goes outside) specialist, which makes her less qualified at the task. Mark in the book suggests poking a hole in his suit’s hand so he could fly to them like Iron Man, which is dumb. They point out it’s dumb in both the book and the movie. In the book, they don’t do it, and of course, in the movie, they do just that because there isn’t enough tether for Lewis to get to Watney—and it’s still dumb.

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