The premise: a Mars mission is forced to abandon the planet during a storm. In the chaos, one of their number, Watney, is killed. They don't even have time to bury him before they take off. Except Watney's not dead.
With no hope of survival beyond the limit of his food, water and air supply, our hero is doomed to die. And so the story begins.
Weir has taken a nice simple premise and played it out with a Hollywood scattering of bit players and an engaging heroic protagonist. It feels like it's either already in script form, or is about to be made into one, but I'm not criticising that at all – either way is a terrific way to construct a story.
The narrative is in plain, folksy language, and is a well-paced, engaging read with plenty of twists of the whatever-can-go-wrong, does-go-wrong sort. It’s a popular novel, especially in the US, and the Amazon reviews quickly piled up to sub-orbital heights. A big well-done-that-man to Andy Weir.
It’s mostly in diary form, which gives it an engaging first person feel, allowing us in to Watney’s stoic good humour as he tackles the slings and arrows. Overall, Watney was a little too stoic for me – just a touch of total despair, wretched, bowel-loosening fear and utter misery would, I feel, been appropriate to the context and enhanced his characterisation. Speaking of characters, I liked them. I liked them all. Gosh darn it - they were so damn nice, especially that swell kid who spotted the crucial satellite shots, and whose grumpy good humour added contrast to her gruff Right Stuff bosses.
Yeah, I’m making a point – the characters were well-drawn, distinctive and reasonably memorable but just a tad on the Hollywood side.
Remember, I’m nit-picking here for fellow writers, not damning this book with faint praise – it’s a good, ripping yarn and readers will enjoy it on that basis. The stuff about the characters just reminded me to remind myself that every character should have a purpose.
A whole bunch of research went into this novel, and it shows. Weir deserves some kind of research medal for the length, breadth and depth of his investigations to make every last detail not only plausible but sufficiently accurate to his readership in the OCD Engineers With Asperger’s community. There’s so much explanatory detail, sometimes I drifted off a little. Weir didn’t lose me, however, and generally threw in something new every couple of pages to keep me engaged. It’s a reminder to fellow writers to do the research, then ditch it and allow the characters to feel their way through story so we also feel the skinned knuckle rather than absorb the appropriateness of the particular sized bolt being tightened. Again, not damning with faint praise – the level of detail Watney gives in his diary is consistent with his fix-it-or-fuck-it engineer character. Just sayin’.
Finally, the character of the landscape. I love Martian landscapes sent back by the rovers, so I’m familiar with the colours and textures; with the desolation of low hills and stumbling rocky plains that, unlike Terran deserts, don’t beckon with the promise of an oasis just beyond the horizon. I get the feeling that my stored visuals and imaginings filled in some of the blanks of the Martian landscape because Watney wasn’t that forthcoming about it. For that reason, for me, Mars was more of a painted backdrop in this. It’s not a biggie, but I needed to taste the dirt, smell the sub-zero wind, and hear the aching silence or a muted thud through the almost non-existent atmosphere when spotting a rock-fall.
All in all, congratulations to Andy Weir on The Martian - a great premise played out well. If you enjoy a ripping yarn, enjoy.