Review: The Martian
by Jeff Foust
|What sets The Martian apart is less its characters, though, than its technical rigor. It is very much hard science fiction, with science and technology firmly rooted in reality.
Watney’s is alive, though, but in an awful predicament. With the lander gone, he’s stuck at the landing site. There is a habitat with life support and food, but not enough until another mission can rescue him. There is an ascent vehicle sent ahead for the next mission, but it’s thousands of kilometers away on another part of Mars. Moreover, the storm knocked out the habitat’s communications system, so there’s no way for him to contact Earth, or vice versa.
Weir tells Watney’s story primarily through mission logs that Watney writes as he documents his efforts to stay alive and figure out a way to get home. Watney is both a talented engineer and a botanist; both come in handy in his quest to survive. He’s also a bit of a smartass, a personality trait that makes him a more realistic and sympathetic character, interspersing his accounts of survival with a touch of gallows humor. It’s several chapters into the book before we encounter other characters—NASA officials and other trying to rescue him, and his crewmates on their way back to Earth—who appear in more conventional third-person narrative; they don’t appear as fully fleshed out as Watney, though.
What sets The Martian apart is less its characters, though, than its technical rigor. The Martian is very much hard science fiction, with science and technology firmly rooted in reality. Weir, through Watney’s logs and other narrative, isn’t afraid to delve deeply into topics from orbital mechanics to life support systems to spacecraft engineering. That makes the book all the more realistic, and compelling, for those with sufficient technical backgrounds to appreciate this. Even those who don’t, though, can still appreciate Watney’s efforts to survive without getting bogged down.
That attention to technical accuracy would be largely meaningless unless the book was a good story, and, fortunately, it is. The Martian is a story that’s hard to put down as you wonder how Watney will use his experience and what limited resources he has to find a way to survive as he encounters new challenges and setbacks; the attention to technical detail makes is all the more compelling for those who know enough about spaceflight to appreciate those details. The film rights to the book have been sold, so a version of the story may appear on the big screen in a few years, but it’s hard to imagine that the movie version would be better than the book.