It’s a love / hate thang …

The Martian by Andy Weir

martianOne square in my Book Bingo card is ‘Hated by someone you know’.

That one was so easy to fill, for a few weeks ago my pal Simon Savidge tried to read The Martian and he ended up not finishing it when something in it tipped him over the edge: “That was it, I was done and frankly utterly furious. I threw the book across the room and gave up.” he said.

I’ve been meaning to read The Martian ever since it first came out – and I LOVED IT! It’s the perfect example of a ‘Marmite book’ and shows how different we all are as readers, and how the world would be very boring if we all liked the same things.

That said, I’ll be the first to admit that:

a) It’s not great literature;
b) It’s very nerdy;
c) The level of humour is at best ‘undergraduate’ (cf Seth MacFarlane’s tanker of a novel last year);
d) The women are token;
e) The dialogue is pure cheese!

BUT … it does have one helluva basic plot.

Mark Watney is assumed dead when an accident occurs before the Ares 4 Mission is set to leave Mars and return to Earth. They leave without him, not knowing he’s alive. How long can Mark survive? How can he let Earth know that he’s still there when all communications are broken? Will they come and get him before he dies?

So that’s the situation. I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days.
If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah. I’m fu**ed.

The novel starts with just Mark telling us about his predicament in daily log entries – in detail. It’s lucky that he was the mission’s engineer, for he is a resourceful chap. Not only can he calculate his needs, he is able to juryrig equipment to make it work. His other specialty is botany – and he is able to make the sterile Mars soil fertile through the application of poo to grow the experimental seed potatoes they brought with them. In short he’s able to get air, water and food sorted to give him extra months of survival time. Now time to turn his attention to getting back in contact with Earth…

Eventually, someone on Earth (a young scientist called ‘Mindy’ – yes!) watching the satellites spots things happening on Mars – they can see that the mission’s abandoned rovers have moved. This starts the parallel NASA strand as they go to work to see what’s feasible and ultimately if they can rescue him.

That’s enough plot. I’m guessing that many of you will have seen the marvelous films Apollo 13 or Gravity; some of you may also remember Marooned (from 1969, made before Apollo 13 flew). You know the score – a book like The Martian is unlikely to take a philosophical turn like John Carpenter’s 1974 film Dark Star or the daddy of them all – 2001: A Space Odyssey, so it is perfectly predictable how it will end – it’s the getting there that provides the excitement.

Weir’s narrator does describe all the science and engineering he’s doing as he goes along at great length. To be honest, you don’t have to understand it, you just need to appreciate that he’s able to do something to improve his situation, you can skim the detail. Weir has clearly done his research for the science felt very plausible on the whole, although I wouldn’t like to have to mess around with hydrazine (N2H4, a highly unstable and flammable compound) the way he does – but needs must.

There are plenty of running jokes in Watney’s log entries. He has the contents of the Hermes crew’s personal downloads to watch and listen to, comprising mission commander Lewis’s disco music pplus lots of 70s TV series like The Dukes of Hazzard, he also has plenty of Agatha Christie novels to read. He takes the piss out of his erstwhile crewmate’s media choices constantly, laddishly – it helps keep him sane.

Where the novel is less successful is the parallel strand back home at NASA. This is hackneyed and full of stereotypical characters – no elegant vision of the Mission Control backroom from Apollo 13 here. We also get very little feel for the crew who left him behind, I’d have liked to get to know them better. The Martian was initially self-published chapter by chapter on the author’s blog before it got picked up and became a hit.

You have to remember this is a thriller in a SF setting, once we’ve got over the initial tech stuff – it does pick up the pace nicely, until everything happens rather too fast at the end – a common thriller trope (I hesitate to say common thriller fault, because sometimes you just want it to be over, so you can breathe again – whether in relief, horror or whatever.

The Martian film What was clear from the start was that The Martian would make a brilliant movie – and would you believe it, Ridley Scott thought so too. Matt Damon as Mark will be hitting our screens in late autumn.  Looking at the all-star casting, it’s clear that they are going to big up the parts of the Hermes crew, and particularly the two women (yes, the mission commander and IT officer are both women in the book too).  Jessica Chastain (Lewis) and Kate Mara (Johanssen) will surely demand more than the cameo they get in the novel.  Kristen Wiig will play Annie (NASA’s West Wing CJ equivalent); Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Jeff Daniels will be amongst the NASA team on the ground too.

Yes, I expect I will be going to see it!

So, Simon and other friends who didn’t like it, my feet are firmly in the other camp.  For me, although it wasn’t perfect, it was plausible-ish, huge fun and a good thriller.  (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Martianby Andy Weir. (2014) Del Rey, paperback, 384 pages.



16 thoughts on “It’s a love / hate thang …

  1. Like you, I rather enjoyed the book, despite its obvious shortcomings – partly because it makes science cool and fun. I too think they will ‘correct’ some flat characters in the film version, although I suspect they will big up the conspiracy element too.

  2. I’m afraid I’m with Simon, having given up in dispair yesterday. The idea is very good and it’s nice to read a sci-fi story that isn’t ruined by the usual implausible silliness, but I began to feel as if I was reading a textbook disguised as a novel.

    Two important things are missing. First, there’s no real sense of place. That might sound an absurd objection, given the fact that the whole story revolves around where Mark Watney is, but when he steps out of the airlock, I want to know more about how it looks and feels, not just the cubic ‘liters’ of CO2 present. Second, there’s no sense of Watney as a real person, with failings and frailties. I think the book will make a fantastic film, as it’s a great story, but a novel should tell us something about a person’s inner life.

    I didn’t become engaged with the narrative because I didn’t care about Watney. I also found the relentless accounts of how to produce chemical reactions rather tedious.

    It sounds as if the story picks up, but I didn’t feel that it was worth persisting. I’ll be the first in the queue when the film’s released, but sadly the book isn’t for me.

    • OK – I agree at first the day to day descriptions of how he sorts out the four necessities of life (air, food, water, shelter) are a bit tedious, but the geeky scientist in me liked the way the author didn’t take any of this for granted. It does pick up though – but I’m sure the film will be much more exciting!

  3. I think the whole Bingo square idea about reading something someone else hated is fascinating! What an interesting discussion it’s generated!

  4. Sounds worth a go to me. Interesting that you mentioned hydrazine (indeed not be messed with) as on Friday at work we were wondering about stripping a TiN coating from a diamond using a mixture of hydrofluoric acid and hydrogen peroxide 🙂

    • HF – takes me back to my metallurgy days – with open dishes of HF for etching in the sample polishing room, no goggles or anything… it was the late 1970s. Nowadays, I buy in my acids for school (not HF of course) pre-diluted. No *cough* burning artistic holes in my lab-coat with conc acid for me now…

  5. It’s McGyver in space! Not a book for me, though I enjoyed reading your description of it. I do agree that the world (of books) would be a duller place if we all liked the same thing!

  6. I’ve been tempted for months to pick this up. I’m still not sure whether I’d love or hate it. Since I love Ridley Scott, I know I’ll watch the movie.

  7. I like-not-loved this book, and I agree with you that the supporting cast were the weakest part of the book. But this is where I think it’ll make an excellent movie adaptation — with so many appealing actors and actresses playing the parts, I’m guessing we’ll have stronger feelings about those characters in the film version. YAY.

  8. I knew David Beckham, Matt Damon and Ashton Kutcher were aliens…just going by the cover images for now. That’s what I see. Just being silly at the moment. 🙂

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