Imagine being stranded on Mars. You were injured, left for dead by your crewmates in their rush to get off the planet. You survived, though, and made it back to camp. You have food, but not enough to last, and you have no way of communicating with anyone. Welcome to Andy Weirís bestselling The Martian, now a Golden Globe-winning, Oscar-nominated movie. In the spirit of how the book was originally publishedóin installments on his websiteóIíve decided to review it in installments as well, as I read it.
As you might have surmised, if Iím planning to write multiple short reviews, it must be because Iím enjoying the novel so far. I was a bit worried by the Wall Street Journal cover blurb trumpeting the fact that itís full of real scienceónot because I donít like science, but because it can be a bit dry and get in the way of more important story elements like character and plot. Judging from the first seven chapters, I neednít have worried. The book is indeed full of science, but in service of a gripping plot.
As for character, I also wasnít sure if spending so much time with one character would hold my interest. Again, so far so good. For one thing, astronaut Mark Watney is worth spending time with as he grapples with his many life-threatening challenges and complains about, but is mesmerized by, the 70s TV shows he happens to have with him for entertainment. (They were left behind by his crewmates, who are on their way back to Earth.)
For another thing, weíre not stuck reading about just one character. No, itís not that little green men suddenly appear to keep him company, and I seriously doubt there will be any in subsequent chapters. Itís not that kind of book. Instead, so far, there has been the very moving scene of the people back on Earth at NASA realizing that theyíve left a man behind. Watney is alive, but they appear to have no way of communicating with him, much less of saving him before he starves to death.
Canít wait to see what happens next!
* * *
Just when he thought it was safe to be abandoned alone on an inhospitable hunk of rusted desert, millions of kilometres from another human soulóWham!óanother calamitous setback, and Mark Watney is fucked! (His word, not mine.) Iím about halfway through the novel now, and even with some of the smartest people on Earth trying to help, itís not at all clear Watneyís going to make it. The important thing, though, from my point of view as a reader, is that I still care whether he does or not.
If I have any criticisms so far, itís that the other characters in the book are pretty thinly drawn. Iíd like to get to know some of them a bit better. Even Watney himself, although much more detailed, comes across as quite stoic in his log entries. Maybe he needs to be, of course, in order to survive even his initial ordeal, and itís not as if he never gets discouraged by his predicament. But I would enjoy a little more depth and variety of emotion. Heíll admit heís lonely as hell, but I donít really feel what it feels like to be aching for human contact so acutely. I could use a somewhat more poetic flourish in the descriptive bits as well, and a little more philosophizing about things like loneliness, mortality, perseverance, scientific progress, the value of a human life, and so on.
But hey, thatís me. Some readers wonít miss these things, or will consider it a plus that the story is not weighed down with needless exposition or description. And really, you canít have everything. Different authors have different strengths, and Weir has plenty of important ones. The novel still has my attention, thatís for sure. The action is engaging, the science is interesting and explained in terms an educated layperson can understand, and as I said, I care about whether or not Watney makes it, and I get the sense that the other characters do as well. I have been moved to actual tears on more than one occasion, and Iíve chuckled more than once too. If a novel makes me feel and makes me think, and keeps me turning the pages as quickly as this one does, I consider it a success.
* * *
Iím in trouble. When I set out on this mission to write multiple mini-reviews of The Martian as I read it, I didnít really plan out whether or not I would include spoilers. Iíve managed to avoid them pretty well so far, but now that Iím three quarters of the way through the novel, itís getting more difficult not to give stuff away. Solving problems is what writing is all about, though, and Iíve come up with a temporary solution: Iíll write this installment of my review in the style of one of Mark Watneyís log entries.
Okay, so far so good. Iíve got my intro paragraph in place. Now Iíll need to really give a sense of the astronautís thought process as he works through his latest challenge. Of course, a writing challenge is very different from an engineering challenge. For one thing (stay with me here as I whip out some technical jargon), engineers use ďnumbersĒ and ďequations,Ē whereas writers use ďwordsĒ and ďgrammar.Ē
The tricky thing about writing is not the words, though, or how to string them together to form grammatical sentences. That part takes some time to learn, but when youíve got it down, itís there, and you can just draw on it pretty much at will. The tricky thing is coming up with the ideas that will knit those sentences together into paragraphs that hold up under scrutiny, that draw the reader in, that convey something thatís worth reading in a way thatís both clear and interesting.
Now a few words to wrap it up, and just like that, I think my problem is solved. Let me read it over to make sure I havenít made any mistakes thatíll blow up in my face when it comes time to deploy. Yup, it checks out. I think it has enough humour in it that it doesnít come across as too pretentious. Iíll only know for sure once I take it out for a test drive, but thatíll have to wait till tomorrow. Time to see what those Duke boys are up to.
* * *
Iím gonna stick with the ďno spoilersĒ thing and just confirm that The Martian is definitely worth reading. In fact, despite some shortcomings (which I mentioned in my second mini-review), I found this an inspiring book for a number of reasons. First and most obviously, itís a story of perseverance in the face of truly daunting odds. Despite it being a fairly safe bet that heís doomed, Watney fights to extend his time and grow his chances. Make it or not, the battle itself gives meaning to his existence.
Reading about his struggle to survive inspired me get a little more perspective on my own shit. Life is precious, and I want to try harder not to waste time and energy resenting the little annoyances. I want to do a better job of savouring the small sweetnesses, and carve out some hours on a more regular basis for the big, important projects that bring me a deeper sense of fulfillment.
I was also reminded about how inspirational science is. We humans have accomplished so much. Weíve ridden controlled explosions into outer space, for frackís sake! I know some of us have also done terrible things. But life here on Earth has gotten so much better for so many, and continues to improve for almost everyone, all thanks to human ingenuityóand especially to its unleashing some 200 years ago. That ingenuity is on sparkling display on every page of The Martian.
Iím also personally inspired by the story behind the story, by how Andy Weir put his novel out there for free on his website, one chapter at a time, and how it grew into the best-selling book and award-winning movie that it is now. I know that 19th century authors like Dickens published novels in serial format, but I love that someone successfully did it in the 21st century. It gives me hope, as an aspiring novelist myself, that there are different ways to make a go of it as a writer these days, even with the ongoing shakeup of traditional publishing.
And finally, if a little perversely, I take some inspiration from the novelís shortcomings themselves. This book does some things very well, and some things only passably well, but itís a success anyway. I donít just mean commercially; I mean that itís a success as a work of fiction. My own first novel, which Iíve been writing and rewriting on an off for years, will do some things better than this book, and some things less well. I want it to be as good as I can make it, but as long as it does enough things well enough, it will also be a success as a work of fictionóand with a little luck, a commercial success too. If I can keep in mind that it doesnít have to be perfect to be worth reading, I might just finish the damn thing one of these days.
* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.