Review: The Martian

The Martian - Andy Weir

I really enjoyed The Martian, more than I expected to.  I’ve seen this book discussed and reviewed quite a bit, although I had managed to skim past most of the plot-related info.  I didn’t know much more than “astronaut in trouble” and “probably has something to do with Mars”.  Yes, once again I have cleverly deduced a critical plot point by reading a book’s title.  You’re all astounded, I know!  Actually, I think somehow along the way I’d not-so-cleverly gotten the info I’d read about this book mixed up in my head with trailers I’d seen of the movie Gravity, which I never watched.  I was picturing a completely different kind of “astronaut in trouble” story, which made this story more of a surprise for me than in probably should have been.


So why did I enjoy it more than I expected to?  One of the things I did remember seeing mentioned frequently about this book was favorable commentary on its math and science.  I’m moderately interested in both of those things, so I’m not opposed to a book that features those things heavily, but I was a little skeptical about a book that provoked everybody to comment on its math and science.  I was afraid this might be one of those books that make people feel smart for having read and understood them, but aren’t necessarily that entertaining to read. 


The book does have a lot of science in it.  I would argue that it really doesn’t have much math, except for very simple math that any elementary school graduate could understand.  I was expecting complex equations written out in the book, but there wasn’t anything like that.  Everything was conveyed in an interesting and easily accessible way, building from information you probably remember from school.  The science never got boring because the details weren’t overdone.  The character who was telling us most of the science stuff was funny and he interspersed it with plenty of less-sciencey stuff.


The larger portion of the story is told in a diary format by Mark Watney, the “astronaut in trouble”.  The story opens up with him regaining consciousness on Mars to find himself completely alone on the planet with no way to communicate with anybody or to get himself off the planet.  During an emergency evacuation from Mars, Mark appeared to have been fatally wounded and his crewmates had to leave him behind to get off the planet alive themselves.  Aside from Mark, we also spend some time reading from the third-person perspectives of various other characters who are invested in Mark’s survival. 


So obviously this is a survival story, but it’s not one of those stories where ridiculous event after ridiculous event happens to ensure non-stop jeopardy for our hopeful survivor.  It’s also not one of those stories where the main character acts like a moron so that his own stupid mistakes can help create jeopardy.  Mark is smart, he’s practical, he thinks things through, and he tests his theories in incremental stages before relying on them to keep him alive.  I really liked the way he thought, and I found his thought process easy to identify with.  It’s not that he never makes mistakes.  He does, but they were made in a believable way and for believable reasons.  The problems he encountered seemed realistic and his solutions for them seemed equally realistic.  I completely bought into the story with minimal skepticism.  Mark's also pretty funny.  He's maybe a little immature at times, but he felt like a real person.


There was a point, around 10 or 15%, where I started to worry that the story would get tedious.  It was still interesting, but I felt the threat of tedium looming.  Then there was a perspective change that opened up the story a bit and that was when I went from interested to really interested.  I could barely put the book down from that point on.  I liked the ending ok, but I was hoping for a more detailed ending than what we got.


There was only one thing I was really skeptical about, but it didn’t really relate to Mark’s dilemma in itself: 

I had trouble buying into the huge expenditure of money to save a single life.  I can understand why the public was so invested in such a dramatic story that they could empathize with.  I also get that this public obsession, in combination with the NASA employees who knew Mark personally and were fighting for anything they thought would lead to his survival, made it difficult for NASA to abandon Mark.  I just find it hard to believe there wasn’t more of an outcry over spending millions of dollars to save one man when that money could have been used in so many other ways to save a much larger number of lives.  Mark himself seemed to take that in stride when he thought about it toward the end of the book, whereas I would have felt horribly guilty.

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