I watched The Martian a few weeks ago and the story has stuck in my mind so when my flight was delayed last weekend, I decided that I was more than justified in picking up the paperback in the airport bookshop. A few people had mentioned that the book was ‘better’ or revealed more so … I was curious. The result was a white knuckle ride with a heavy dose of science and very complex technology. But did it add much to the background of the film?
For those who have not had the pleasure of watching the film already, the basic plot is that Mark Watney is an astronaut, the seventeenth human being to visit Mars. During a sandstorm, he and his team are forced to bail out of Mars (or bail up since there’s no parachute involved? Not sure). As they struggle towards the Hermes vessel, Watney is hit by shrapnel, so that all of his colleagues believe him to be dead, so they leave the planet without him. The novel opens with Watney explaining to the reader that in fact, rumours of his demise have been exaggerated and that he is still very much alive – where the question mark lies however is how long this will last. In a barren planet and with no way of contacting Earth, Watney needs to come with a plan (and a good one at that) to ensure his further survival. He has a long road to climb.
The first thing that hits you with The Martian is that it is heavy on the science, more than somewhat. This is a book for the nerds in this world, and I say that with the very greatest of respect, since it’s fairly obvious that I am one myself albeit of a different variety. Watney stops to spurt tech-speak at every step so that there were various points where I was left with only a hazy impression of what he was actually doing. The various cover quotes celebrate how realistic it is, including a commendation from Chris Hadfield. I did do a quick check though with my designated science consultant (boyfriend also functions as consultant in web design, automobile issues and technology support) and I was informed that at least one of the NASA solutions was ‘far-fetched’, so I think that even with this, some corners may have been cut in the service of the plot. What we do have though is an imaginative and thoroughly thought out account of how a human might survive on a barren planet.
I grew up in a family who were Star Trek fans – or more accurately, with one relative who liked it and who tended to have control over the television remote. Although a traumatic incident (Next Generation crew member got sucked into the black lagoon and died) when I was five meant that I refused to look directly at the screen with it on for the next four years, I am familiar with the set-up. However, while the United Federation of Planets portrays a Utopian future of harmony, The Martian depicts a world closely married to our own – man may have made it to Mars but otherwise the planet has moved on but little. So this is simultaneously a book for science fans but not necessarily to be enjoyed solely by science fiction aficionados.
I have read criticisms of the characterisation and to be fair, there is not a great deal of nuance. Watney himself claims to be nerdy and at one point demands to be allowed to do a risky stunt so he can be ‘like Iron Man’, but he is otherwise fairly bland. The story is told via his written logs, which be a reason why we do not get an insight into his darker thoughts, but it is also possible that Weir never really thought about creating one. A NASA psychologist appears on the CNN ‘Mark Watney report’ but her analysis is almost comic in its blandness – later Mark messages his team members ‘because the NASA psychologist told me to’, but again there is no real depth of analysis. This is a novel about the science, not about the emotion. This is definitely one of those novels where I found myself differentiating the characters solely on their names since they lacked personalities to render them individually distinct. I see all of this. But.
This is also a story of survival, about a man deciding that, stuff it, he is not going to die, he refuses to do it, he is going to find a way. Back on Earth, the world decides that they are going to do what they can, whatever they can to bring him back. Brief mentions are made of the middle-aged couple in Chicago who are terrified for their son, a few asides of what Watney’s fellow crew members stand to lose but the primary force of the novel is this determination, this will to find a solution to every catastrophe, to overcome, to survive, it is this which makes The Martian such a fun read. It is this that made want to punch the air when I reached the conclusion – so if Mark Watney did not engage with despair, that may be more of a sign of him as a man who turned his mind from this and who instead fixed his eyes on the glimmering possibility of his own triumph. The film is spectacular with a fantastic performance from Matt Damon and a luminescent Jessica Chastain as his commander but this odd little book, despite its heavy dollops of science, turned out to be quite the page turner.
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Published by Random House on August 27th 2015
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