Task #2: Read a debut novel
Book: The Martian by Andy Weir
Publisher: Crown (2014)
Before I begin, I have an admission to make: I watched the movie before reading the book. I absolutely loved it! It was alternately hilarious and tense, but either way, I was so enthralled that when I realized that there was a book, I was excited to read it. Would the book be able to move me like its on-screen adaptation?
Andy Weir’s debut novel The Martian is a novel of science, survival, rescue and, most of all, cooperation. Mark Watney, an American astronaut, gets left behind (presumed dead) when his team evacuates their Mars mission due to a dangerous storm. When NASA realizes that Watney is still alive, they begin a rescue operation to retrieve him before it’s too late. The book shifts between Watney’s first person perspective in the form of a diary, and a third person view of NASA employees and Watney’s crew on the ship Hermes.
A lot happens in The Martian, and unfortunately, it frequently moves much slower than it should. Many passages are full of humor that helps the pages fly, but there are also passages dry enough to slow the reader down with details. Ironically, one of the most impressive elements of this book is also one of its most tedious. It’s very clear that Weir put a great deal of research into the science of his story – and the result is unusually believable. In a way, it’s impressive that Weir knows so much about about the methods for creating H2O in space and the accompanying dangers, but I can’t say I actually enjoyed reading multiple pages about it in dryly scientific terms. Many of the characters, especially Watney, tend to use a lot of technical jargon (“MAV,” for example), and while it makes sense that they would, it’s ultimately a burden on the non-specialist reader, who is forced to stop and concentrate on just understanding what the characters are saying rather than following along easily. More accessible dialog might have come at the cost of realism, but it would have been well worth the cost.
Watney’s sense of humor, a brilliant combination of dark and silly, was one of the main draws of The Martian. His situation is dire, survival seems nearly impossible, but he still keeps up the jokes. This interesting tone is largely because his sections of the book take the form of his journal entries, and he would not be likely to log new entries if he truly upset. The despair he feels as death creeps closer nearly always goes unspoken, hidden between the lines. By comparison, the third-person narration of the rest of the book is more emotionally straightforward, the characters’ feelings explored explicitly through what they say, do, and think. These sections are not nearly as funny as Watney’s, but they are well-paced, quick to read, and offer an interesting contrast.
I was struck especially by how Weir’s shifting perspectives demonstrate the sheer scale of the rescue operation. While the third-person section of the novel are very precise in conveying the passage of time, the close third-person is constantly shifting, at times, seemingly at random. It goes from NASA employees, to the Hermes’ crew and (at one point) their families, to TV reporters and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) administrators. Altogether, Weir assembles these fragments into a larger picture and illustrates the astounding—almost frustrating—complexity of organizing this rescue mission. Only by conveying the vast human scale of the endeavor, in both time spent and effort exerted, does the fact that they chose to do it have true gravitas. (including external pressures as illustrated by the media’s – and subsequently the larger population’s – interest in Watney’s situation) (Incidentally, this is something that the movie does not communicate as effectively).
In the end, The Martian is a fantastic space/science thriller. It can occasionally be a bit slow, but overall, it’s a true page-turner and left me thoroughly satisfied, and demonstrated yet again that a story can be told effectively both on the page and on screen. Whether you have seen the movie or not, the book is worth your time.