I just read: The Martian

The MartianOK, I’m gonna almost brag and say I almost discovered Andy Weir before he blew up. A couple of years ago, I was looking to read a book about life on a planet with gravity that was lower than Earth’s. Mars seemed like an obvious place to start. I stumbled upon this self-published book, ‘The Martian,’ that seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. I added it to my to-read list. A few months later I went back to its page on the Kindle Store, and I was greeted with a weird message, something to the effect of: “The Martian is not available at this time. It will be re-released by Random House on such-and-such a date.”

Good for that guy, I thought. And I decided to keep an eye for the re-published ebook.

At this point, it would be nearly impossible to be regular reader and to not know about Andy Weir’s novel. In less than two years, he has rocketed to the stratosphere of self-published success stories, among the likes of E.L. James and Hugh Howey. Now he’s clocking in with a multi-spread interview in Entertainment Weekly, and a huge movie adaptation of The Martian starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kirsten Wiig… pretty much everybody. You can watch the trailer here.

What’s even more impressive is that Weir reached escape velocity with just one book. Guess what? The book is just that good.

The elevator pitch for the novel would be something like ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars.’ After a freak storm, Mark Watney, an engineer and botanist, is assumed dead and stranded on Mars by his astronaut buddies. The book takes place in the near future, so his landing zone is one of the few spots on the planet where he can find abandoned supplies and technology. It takes an Earth vessel something like a year to reach the red planet, and even longer to prep the flight. And Watney doesn’t even have a way to let NASA know that he’s alive.

First off, if ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ sounds even more boring than the original Robinson Crusoe (take THAT Daniel Defoe!), let me assuage your concerns. Sure, the hero spends most of his time holed up inside tiny habitats or an even tinier rover vehicle, and these settings COULD get monotonous. But Weir deftly turns the narrative to the colorful characters at Mission Control at just the right moments. We also check in with Watney’s heroic former shipmates, who are still traveling back to Earth.

Because of those breaks, Watney’s story stays fresh—and it is riveting. Our lonesome astronaut has to make his own food, recycle his water, recycle his poop, nourish the bacteria in his poop, create oxygen, create electricity, generate heat, get rid of heat, get rid of carbon dioxide, customize a land vehicle, rebuild his shelter. Watney’s challenges are constant, and his solutions are fascinating. There’s no question that Weir knows his science, and his enthusiasm for the subject is infectious. I’ve heard that the publishers are considering excising the swear-words from the book to make an educational version for school curriculums. I think that would be great. If this book doesn’t inspire a whole generation of impressionable youths join NASA, I’ll eat a Sputnik!

But Weir is not only an excellent teacher, he’s an expert storyteller. He uses several POVs and narrative devices to wring drama or  funnies from each scene. Most of the story is told in 1st-person, from passages in Watney’s log. But when the narrative occasionally shifts perspective—and time-frame—to explain how the outer shell on Watney’s habitat was manufactured and assembled… Well you have some good old-fashioned sweaty-palm foreshadowing that something bad is about to go down with that outer shell. Weir uses these narrative shifts to great effect. There’s one toward the end of the book—I won’t explain it here, to avoid spoilers—where the ‘perspective’ of the book shifts cinematically to a very faraway shot of Watney on the silent landscape of Mars. I think that will make a great scene in the movie.

Lastly, let me gush over the character of Mark Watney. Dude is like the nerd version of Indiana Jones. Weir writes him to be funny, and rousingly positive, considering his dire situation. Sure some of that is ‘whistling past the graveyard,’ and it is explained as such. But an upbeat protagonist is a welcome surprise, considering the subject matter. Honestly, I was expecting long, pensive passages as the castaway struggles with depression and loneliness. There is not much of that.

Often in sci-fi or fantasy, you’re presented with a hero that other characters will totally mark out over, and all that fictionally generated admiration can get a little grating. (I’m looking at you, Doctor Who!) But when characters in The Martian start saying stuff like “If anyone can do it, Watney can…” or “With Watney out there, anything is possible…” you start to believe it too. I’m sure Watney is meant to encapsulate what should be our can-do aspirations on space exploration, and Weir flat-out pulls it off. The book ends with a ‘Rah-Rah’ speech about the innate goodness and ingenuity of humanity that almost made me well up. And I never almost do that over a book.

Here’s hoping that Weir’s next book, a more far-flung sci-fi story, will be half as good.

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