Andy Weir's road to publishing The Martian is a road many new writers would love to take. After writing as a hobby for many years and penning multiple short stories, which he published for free on his website, Weir set about writing a novel, The Martian. Originally releasing the book a chapter at a time on his website, again for free, he used reader feedback to fine-tune the work as he went along—and he only released it as an e-book because those same loyal readers wanted to download it to their e-readers.
The Martian went on to sell 35,000 copies in three months, so unsurprisingly it wasn't long before he'd signed with an agent and inked a print deal. The book has subsequently been met with rave reviews across the board, so naturally something must be wrong with it. Books rarely get such universal love without a follow-up backlash explaining why it's actually a pile of dung.
Not here though. Well, not entirely.
The Martian is the kind of hard sci-fi that is so rock-solid that it could very well be true: the missions to Mars detailed in the book are based around the existing "Mars Direct" plan which in interviews Weir has said is "the only plausible way we could have a manned mission there." In fact, despite being set largely on Mars, the story is so believable, so recognisable, that it stops feeling like science fiction and dips its toe into being a plain, contemporary action story. Weir even claims that he stumbled across the idea for the story when, in his spare time and as a pet project, he started coming up with a plan for a mission to Mars, complete with his "own software to calculate the orbital trajectory." So, even before writing this book, Weir was committed to the practicalities of the project. This is perhaps both one of the book's biggest strengths and also something that could leave the more observant reader feeling a little cheated. More on that later.
The Martian tells the tale of Mark Watney, who, as part of the third mission to Mars, gets left behind after a particularly vicious sandstorm calls a halt to the mission. While they are on the way to the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle), the storm rips the satellite off of the team's Hab (their base of operations and home on Mars), and this in turn tears through Watney's EVA suit—sending him flying off through the storm. Despite the crew's best efforts to find him, they end up leaving him alone on Mars, presuming him dead. Watney has to use his skills as an engineer and botanist to improvise a way of sustaining himself for four years, using equipment and supplies designed to last just thirty-one days. In the first four words of the book Watney sums it up like this:
I'm pretty much fucked. (p. 1)
Now, I realise that the author's first goal is to arrest the reader from the get-go with a situation that makes them want to know what happens next; but if I'm honest, if I hadn't already committed to reviewing this book it would have at this point gone straight back on the shelf. I'm no prude—in fact I'm a huge fan of swearing when it comes to everyday life—but "I'm pretty much fucked" is a pretty cheesy opening line, and could even be said to be childish. This is a shame considering the intellectual heft it takes to write a book like The Martian.
This opening line is justified, however, when you start to get to know Mark Watney. He is almost always impossibly cheery about his situation—at least in his logs—and swearing is just part of his everyday vocabulary. Watney, it turns out, is the kind of guy who, when finding himself alone in a barren wasteland, would actually find something to joke about, and by using the logs as Watney's voice, Weir cleverly never lets the tone become bogged down in despair. Even as catastrophe after catastrophe befalls Watney, he always picks himself up and dusts himself down and gets on with it. That being said, swearing in the first line still seems a little too hack for such a science-heavy novel.
In Watney's logs he records each one of his problems and then explains, in detail, the science behind each one of his solutions. It makes for heavy reading but is necessary as it adds to the believability of what's going on.
First of all, for instance, the obvious problems of food and water are swiftly dealt with. The base has a unit for recycling urine so Watney will never run dry. Meanwhile, he discovers that, by using soil samples and potatoes brought from Earth, he can grow his own food by mixing Mars dirt and Earth soil with his own faeces. It's this farming of potatoes that leads to the first of many scientific solutions to which Watney will resort throughout the book, and it's these detailed solutions that make you forget you're reading a science fiction book. At one point, we get ten pages of instructions, interspersed with Watney's colorful descriptions, on how to make water if you're ever stranded on Mars with only a supply of carbon dioxide and hydrazine. That being said, some of the time the science goes straight over my head and possibly those of the majority of readers—so he could be fudging it. Within the book itself, we only have the word of Weir and the respected science critics to go on, unless we are willing to do that further reading ourselves. With his book consisting largely of these scientific explanations, Weir is resting a lot on this believability factor—without it the book would be something much more run-of-the–mill. And if he is fudging the science, then a large part of the novel's appeal goes with it—as we shall see.
By using the logs as a device, and because something is always happening to poor Mark Watney, Weir manages to squeeze multiple cliff-hangers into each chapter. At times, this gives it the feel of a less condescending Dan Brown novel (Wait! Come back!). For example: as soon as he's fixed his water problem, Mark finds himself stranded in a Mars Rover vehicle having inadvertently turned the Hab into a bomb (by miscalculating how much hydrogen he was releasing into the atmosphere, obviously). He then works out a solution for that, thinks he has it sussed, and promptly blows himself across the room—leaving him to work out what has happened this time. So by page forty-eight, he's been stranded on Mars, managed to survive a hole in his spacesuit, figured out several times how not to die—first from starvation and thirst, then poisoning—and blown himself up. This constant battering of the protagonist could become tiresome in the wrong hands, but Weir always has a scientific explanation as to why these things would happen, and the explanations also provide a buffer in between batterings: no matter how much Weir beats up Watney you can't help but accept it.
Up until this point, the book has been told in the first person, a device that allows the reader to feel closer to Watney's struggle. As the narrative moves away from Watney and back to Earth, however, we switch to third person—which not only clearly defines the planetary switch, but also allows us to be introduced to a whole host of new characters. On Earth, tension is ratcheted up when, after studying satellite images of Mars's surface, NASA realise that Watney is still alive. We see NASA panic as, on the day they are holding Watney's memorial service, they realise that not only have they left a man alive on Mars with no way of getting home, but they have to tell the world that they messed up. In doing so, they make the questionable decision not to tell the rest of the Ares mission's crew, who remain in transit from Mars, about Watney's survival.
This little decision is one that will split readers: some will immediately start to mistrust NASA, especially with the Ares flight director, Mitch Henderson, playing the part of the stock figure of the noble NASA employee vehemently fighting to tell the Ares crew:
Mitch poked the table with his finger. "They deserve to know. You think Commander Lewis can't handle the truth?"
"It's a matter of morale," Venkat said. "They can concentrate on getting home-"
"I'll make that call," Mitch said. "I'm the one who decides what's best for the crew. And I say bring them up to speed." (p. 84)
Even when Weir has stated in subsequent interviews that it is the most sensible course of action not to tell the crew, most readers' standard reaction will to be rail against The Man, no doubt on the strength of Hollywood movies telling you to do just that. Even in a debut novel it's hard to believe that Weir has done this accidentally, which is either the sign of a writer who'll willingly, and rather transparently, use clichés in his work as a shortcut to manipulating the reader, or one who believes what he's doing is subtle. Either way, it doesn't bode well if Weir wishes to be taken seriously by any of his contemporaries.
The first plan NASA come up with is to send extra supplies to Watney, and each department rallies together to get this done, cutting corners in the process. The entire time you can see it's going to go wrong—and sure enough the launch fails. Cut to much panicking and extra tension, during which you find yourself thinking if this was standard sci-fi fare they'd be turning the ship around somehow and going back for Watney, before remembering it's meant to be as realistic as possible so that's probably not an option. But, wait. Because that's exactly what they do.
First of all, however, NASA partner up with the China National Space Administration, and, in exchange for putting a Chinese astronaut on Mars, the Americans get one of CNSA's rockets to use as a glorified supply probe in place of the one that failed. Then astrodynamicist Rich Purnell, whose job it is to come up with the orbits and course corrections for missions, discovers a way of getting supplies to the Hermes—and turning the ship around.
The more cynical among you may see this development, along with the inclusion of a flight director character fighting against NASA's bureaucracy, as Weir deliberately pulling the strings of the audience in increasingly obvious ways. Indeed, at this point in the story it's clear that Weir isn't a particularly deep writer; this might be construed by some as the work of a writer still finding his feet, and it could very well be. But Weir has also stated in interviews that, when writing, his main intention is to keep the reader's interest at all costs—so he's either setting his stall out as a writer early on in his career or is being slightly naive. Either way, the problem is that this generic Hollywood story-structure starts to rub up against the elements of reality—of authenticity—which Weir has striven so hard to maintain.
This happens again when it's decided that NASA won't risk the lives of the Hermes crew to save Watney—again the authentic, sensible option with which the Hollywood-schooled reader will somehow end up disagreeing. Predictably, then, along comes Mitch Henderson to argue for the side of "right." This time, others agree with him. After saying his piece and storming out of the room, NASA administrator Teddy Sanders apologises to Annie Montrose, the director of media relations:
"Sorry about that, Annie," he said. "What can I say? Sometimes men let testosterone take over—"
"I was hoping he'd kick your ass," she interrupted.
"I know you care about the astronauts, but he's alright. You are a fucking coward. If you had balls, we might be able to save Watney." (p. 207)
Weir has to make sure the reader is on-side with the less sensible, more heroic, option but it's creaky Hollywood dialogue like this that shows why the novel was optioned for a movie so quickly.
The end of the book partly concerns Watney's journey from the base to the site where the next Ares mission is due to land—as it's there that he'll find the only other MAV on the planet. This unit hasn't been fully fuelled yet, and so has to be stripped down to its bare parts and then remote-controlled from the Hermes. Other than that, we follow the Hermes crew on their journey back. Weir intersperses this section with the crew's communications with their families, a clever trick that allows you to sympathise with the crew and make you aware of how much they're giving up to go back to Mars and save their crewmate. Although this is very much Watney's story, these short communications add an extra depth to the book that Watney's logs are sometimes lacking—as likeable as Watney is, he is only telling his story through professional logs and occasional contact with NASA, so you rarely get insight beyond his positivity and bluster.
Weir has since said that he has had people contact him to say that they "don't normally like science fiction but . . ." and perhaps it's the fact that the line between standard action thriller and science fiction is so blurred in The Martian that readers come out unsure of which side to fall. I'm pretty sure Weir doesn't actually care. Despite showing his love for the likes of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein—and occasionally showing that love by writing short stories in that vein, most notably the Clarke-esque "The Egg"—The Martian shows none of that classic SF influence. The book has had many compliments from respected writers, comparing it to "Robinson Crusoe—on Mars!", and "Apollo 13 . . . on Mars!", but what Weir seems to have written is Die Hard minus the terrorists—ON MARS! This is only made more noticeable once you notice that, although Watney is clearly a very smart character, he is essentially John McClane with added brains, and the other characters are only there as tools to aid Watney's survival.
It's the ability to make these comparisons—to a story that takes place on an island, an episode from space age history, and one that takes place at Nakatomi Plaza—that emphasises one of the main flaws for anyone expecting a good meaty chunk of science fiction: the story never engages the genre beyond setting itself in space and on another planet.
All in all, however, The Martian is a fun debut: chock full of tension, action, and some suitably believable situations. It's just not a science fiction novel as such. As I said before, it's like a less condescending Dan Brown novel—a thriller with added science-y bits to impress and distract you from the weaker points of the story and characters. Unlike Dan Brown, however, Weir never feels the need to over-explain the more complicated aspects of his science, so he at least never talks down to you (even where he might well be making it up). Nevertheless, if you start reading The Martian expecting the next big thing in hard SF, you will undoubtedly walk away feeling cheated and disappointed. Instead, when reading this book, I suggest the best way to enjoy it is in the same way you would the latest Hollywood blockbuster: with your brain ready to be entertained if not particularly challenged. Don't believe everything you read.
Mark Granger also writes for music sites. You can find his most recent work at mark-granger.tumblr.com.