During a mission to Mars, Mark Watney is left stranded by a freak accident. The rest of his crew think him dead and leave for Earth.
This book should be subtitled “How to survive on Mars when everything there wants to kill you.” Almost every chapter has something going wrong for Watney, yet he manages to stay alive using the most powerful tools he has – his brain and his will to survive.
Watney is indomitable, a Martian Terminator. He won’t stay down, and it’s that spirit of resilience that carries the book. We all love someone who just. Won’t. Quit.
I say it’s Watney that carries the book, and I’ll stick with that. We’ll get to his character in a minute, but the rest of the cast are pretty flat and two dimensional. They exist only as props for the main action. And yet they work, because all we really care about is the guy on Mars. Everyone else can be the second spear-carrier on the left and it doesn’t really matter.
Watney himself is an odd character. He writes sometimes like a twelve year old, his logs full of exclamation marks and comments like “Look, boobs! (.Y.)”. The immaturity is striking against his other character traits. He’s a very smart guy, very determined to survive.
We never get a feel for what’s going on internally though; we only get surface impressions. Nothing about the intense pressure of someone living alone without hearing a human voice, without seeing a blade of grass, or even the simple pleasure of taking a shower. Very little about what it’s like to be where he is. I’m reminded of other stories about Mars that bear comparison – “I, Mars” by Ray Bradbury and his “Martian Chronicles” both of which give more insights into what people are experiencing as they wander the Martian hills.
The book is so much more powerful when we do get to see inside Watney – he makes contact with Earth, then goes back to his habitat and cries. When he’s being rescued, he asks for a minute when he sees another human being for the first time in years. More moments like that would have deepened the book.
Mars itself exists only to throw things at Watney. Weir is (perhaps intentionally) vague on what it would really feel like to be there, to see what Watney is seeing. Watney is trying to survive, but there’s nothing even as small as the way the Martian dust clings to his boots or gets in his hair.
Because of that, the setting of Mars becomes irrelevant. With a few tweaks, the story could have been set anywhere where the character is isolated and survives on his own wits. An asteroid or a desert island – if you don’t immerse me in where you are, it doesn't matter.
There are a lot of pages where this book felt like maths problems from a textbook: “I have 50 square metres of soil which I need to cover to a depth of 3.4cm. I need to irrigate it with 1.64 cubic centimetres per gram of water, how much will I need?” Fortunately, the answer is given instantly and it can be skimmed through without thinking about it.
As a last note, I saw the film before I read the book, and I think the two complement each other very well. A rare case where each is as good as the other.