It’s not often that I read novels in the same year that they were published – my usual reading interests are very much based in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But I’ve been hearing rave reviews of Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian, even from friends who don’t regularly read science fiction. And after three nights of rushing home from work to hurriedly continue reading, I can see why.
The novel follows astronaut Mark Watney as a freak accident leaves him stranded on Mars, assumed dead. Running out of food, water, and oxygen, Watney must use his ingenuity and engineering skills to survive. Everything is against him, from a relentless environment and damaged machinery to plain human error. The novel reads like MacGyver In Space as Watney overcomes problem after problem. And it’s good fun.
Weir’s attention to detail is main attraction of the story; this is an author who has done his research. Every problem and solution is based in real science. And we’ve got the whole gamut of disciplines on display: physics, chemistry, biology, and botany. In fact, Watney’s expertise and ingenuity are so developed that he makes MacGyver look like an amateur.
This is the second science fiction text this year that has reminded me of the early fiction of Robert A. Heinlein. I wrote recently how the film Interstellar features a deterministic hero engineer who overcomes his problems with judicious application of Willpower. And The Martian has moments of similarity. Watney attempts to transform his immediate environment through farming and engineering. Yet, unlike Heinlein’s novels, Watney’s Mars does not bend to his Willpower. In fact, it remains obstinately opposed to his efforts of domestication, constantly undermining his achievements and adding new struggles. This feels like a piece that was written in answer to Heinlein.
Perhaps the best parts of the novel are when Watney re-establishes contact with Earth, and he begins to feel that the bureaucrats at NASA are hampering his efforts to survive. He has become accustomed to looking after himself, and their committee decisions are made to seem weak and ineffective. There’s a disdain for bureaucracy throughout the entire novel. Each time the bureaucrats at NASA attempt to help, they invariably fail. It’s only when individuals take matters into their own hands, whether it is Watney or his former crewmates, that results are achieved. The story is a triumph of individualism.
But Watney is not infallible. Human error is a constant threat throughout the story, and there’s a few times when Watney’s carelessness almost costs him his life. However, it is his dogged resilience and humour that gets him through.
I found the tone of disdain for bureaucracy to be a little jarring, given the obvious parallels to Apollo 13. NASA has a proven record for ingenuity through teamwork, and the idea that the rescue of a stranded astronaut might be accomplished through freelance heroism rather than the work of a team strained my credulity. And yet we are positioned to view NASA almost as a hindrance to Watney’s survival, an organization too cumbersome and bureaucratic to affect any real solution. Thankfully, the individuals who comprise the organization are able capable of acting by themselves.
This celebration of a type of hero engineer/inventor has striking parallels to what critic John Clute has labelled the Edisonade. And Watney certainly fits the profile. He is a male US inventor who overcomes obstacles by sheer ingenuity and saves himself from defeat. His inventions – in this case, the heavily modified rovers – enable him to explore the wild, untamed territories of Mars, asserting a sort of ownership over them. Of course, as I’ve already mentioned, the wilderness of Mars resists this imposition of ownership. But Watney’s journey across Mars does have the feel of a grand adventure that you would find in an old-fashioned a dime novel. Coupled with Weir’s scientific approach to the Martian environment, it makes for an exciting tale.
The focus on engineering know-how and gallows humour did begin to grow thin. In his efforts at scientific verisimilitude, Weir sometimes sacrifices good storytelling for good science. I was hoping for some more philosophical exploration of Watney’s situation – the isolation, the despair. My idea of what makes a good novel about Mars has been heavily influenced by novels such as Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950), with its quasi-mystical contemplation of what it means to be human on another world. Or, more recently, Brian Aldiss’s Finches of Mars (2012), which looks at humanity’s evolutionary journey as we move beyond Earth. But this sort of speculation would be alien to Mark Watney, who keeps himself sane by concentrating on the practical aspects of his survival. It might be the strength of the novel, but it some places it is also the novel’s weakness.
Overall, an impressive achievement for a debut novel. I was thoroughly hooked from the first page. I’m looking forward to seeing what Weir writes next.