Book Review: The Martian
This book is great!
You mean you want more of a review than that? So demanding.
The book is great BECAUSE it’s about a sarcastic jerk!
Still not enough? Fine, nerds.
The book is great BECAUSE it’s about a sarcastic jerk stuck on Mars trying to stay alive using math, and chemistry! Pirate-ninjas!
I picked up this book because I saw several members of The Incomparable discussing it on Twitter. (Always blame Jason Snell.) They reviewed it on their podcast. Turns out, they also liked it, but mostly talked about how they could read it in an afternoon because they’re so good at reading. Showoffs!
Apparently, the author wrote it, and released it, as a serial story. This explains a lot of times when he referenced what he had done in a previous chapter. I didn’t understand the constant need to recap things as I was reading it. Remember when I said I didn’t understand the need to constantly recap things? Because I said it.
The other thing, that Scott McNulty points out, is that there really aren’t any characters in this story. You mostly read it for the humor the protagonist conveys in his log entries. It isn’t super realistic because he doesn’t really seem as stressed out as he ought to. The way the other characters in the novel are introduced is also a little strange and I attribute this to it’s serial origins. Recap: Remember when I said it was a serial story?
I still thoroughly enjoyed it, and whole-heartedly recommend it. The only part where you might want to give up is right at the beginning of the book where our intrepid protagonist goes in to math problem after math problem. You seriously have never read this much math in a novel in your life. It’s like a textbook. The math dies down, thankfully, so just skim it if your eyes start to cross.
Remember when I recommended The Martian to you?
My favorite part of the book starts when he goes to get Pathfinder. As an audience, we’re seeing his journey through NASA’s eyes and we aren’t sure if he’s gone nuts and he’s already driving to the Ares IV MAV. It was a good way to build tension. The reverse is true when he does finally go to the Ares IV MAV, and we can see through NASA’s eyes the problem that he doesn’t know anything about: The dust storm. These were both high points of the book, in my opinion.
Another thing, that might be controversial, is when he was dumb enough to break the source of communication that he had put all that time and energy in to. This was actually a good thing, because it made it Mark’s journey, again, instead of NASA just telling him what to do, which was less dramatic.
I thought we could have done with a few things going well though. Seriously, everything was going wrong. Everything. You’d turn a page (scroll) and something benign would be his death, and then he’d be fine again. Since I knew that there was little chance of Mark dying once we got to a certain point in the book, those problems were tiring to read. They were certainly imaginative though.
The rhythm of the chapters is that they largely end on an optimistic note, and the subsequent chapter starts on a negative note about the thing he was just optimistic about. It’s cute. I made reference to it the other day in my post, Adventures in Server Administration.
In the non-spoiler section I mentioned that Scott McNulty had complained about the characters not really being characters. Everyone on the podcast, and myself, essentially agreed that the NASA people were cardboard cutouts, the people on the Ares III were (at best) unrealistic tropes and stereotypes, and that Mark was basically just the author, Andy Weir. I think it’s fine, because Andy is probably a really funny guy, in real life. The worst person in the book was German Guy. I call him German Guy, because that is all he amounts to. At one point, Mark even cracks a joke about what a stereotype German Guy is because he wants to have sausage for breakfast. It’s fine to hang-a-lantern on it, to make a joke out of something like that, but German Guy never broke the mould in any other way, and he was supposed to central to the story, not a one-off joke.
The same goes for the quiet, meek computer scientist that lacks confidence in herself. She had several moments in the book geared towards her, more so than some of the other crew, like Martinez or Lewis, and that time was spent on how meek she was. Really a lot more could have been done with her.
I liked Annie, the public relations rep for NASA, because she was foul-mouthed, and sarcastic, in a charming way. Unfortunately, she also didn’t develop.
Mindy Park, the satcom tech, developed but she just got sarcastic. Her humor started to resemble Mark’s (the author’s). There’s more to humor than sarcasm, as much as it PAINS me to say it. Even if the characters were not going to develop much I would have liked it if they had some variation between one another. You know, other than being German.
The other thing that bothered me was Lewis. It was great that she was a female commander, and she was a very fine commander. The author went to great lengths to make her competent, even in a situation where a member of her crew was stranded. I did not like her infatuation with 70’s TV and disco music. It rang hollow. Even though Andy tried to make it a funny laugh, it seemed like something that didn’t ring true for her. It was important to not have to invent the media that Mark would have to watch, and listen to, from whole cloth — to ground the story in media we know — but this odd. It was like reading a book written by someone that grew up watching syndicated 70’s TV in the 80’s and 90’s. That’s not necessarily a problem, but we don’t even syndicate that stuff now, and Lewis isn’t a super-old person. She’d more likely be watching syndicated TV from the 90’s and 2000’s. That a huge nit that I’m picking here, but it was something that irked me over and over because so many references were made to her music and TV show collection through the course of the book.
Even with the flaws in the novel, I couldn’t put it down once it got going. It’s an action-movie book. It has a lot of thought, of course, in the science of the book, so many might find the comparison to a thoughtless action-movie unfair, but some of those characters are too thin to say that this is a art-house book. That’s fine!