Mark Watney is abandoned, left for dead on the surface of Mars. He can’t hear his own thoughts over the sound of the oxygen in his blood escaping into the vacuum of space. The antenna embedded in his rib cage drags across the sand violently, his body reeling in pain from each sway of the storm. In the face of crisis, his crew relinquishes his corpse to the barren surface of the planet they traveled so far to reach, and begin their ascent from the planet. After all, they have a long, quiet trip home. They didn’t want to leave him, but it was protocol.
Before I begin this review, let me preface this all by saying that The Martian is a very good book. If that’s all you need to hear, then there it is. Go ahead and get started. It’s a tale dripping with heroics; your heart is going to swell with pride in the human race by the time you get to the end of it. Mark Watney is an incredibly resilient, intelligent, and humorous man. As a whole, his supporting cast does a superb job of bringing out the best in him and enduring their hardships were some of my favorite experiences while reading this book. However, because I liked this book so much, I’m going to be pretty frank. It could have been better. This story has so much potential to be a knock-out-slam-dunk-home-run-5-star-all-day-every-day kind of book, and it falls *just* short. Mark Watney’s story is so good, it pains me to see it miss the mark of perfection by so little.
I hate to say it, but if I had to pick just one reason why I’m suffering so much over this, it would be because of the protagonist. Now you may be thinking, “Joe, what gives? You were just praising the guy one paragraph ago?” The problem is this, I like Mark Watney so much, and I want more of the guy. This isn’t Mark’s fault; he’s trapped on Mars after all. He has bigger fish to fry than to paint me a picture of his life, but I have to fault Andy Weir for making Mark such a one dimensional character. Every interaction with our favorite Martian essentially boils down to this MadLib:
"Well, I almost died again today. This time it was the _____ that went and _____. I'm not sure what to do. I'll need some time to think it over" ... ... "I've figured it out! All I need to do is _____. (Insert humorous anecdote)."
This is killing me! Andy Weir, you’ve created such a charismatic, lovable character. I just wish you would have shown us the man inside the EVA suit. I wanted a peek into this man’s mind, into his soul. What drives him? What does he miss about Earth? Who does he miss on Earth? His parents barely get a passing mention, let alone a significant other or friends. He laughs off every catastrophic event in the book like a fearless MacGyver. This is a story about a man who is utterly alone and stands face to face with death itself on a daily basis, and I never once felt afraid for him because I felt that he was never afraid for himself.
Now, I perceive that this is partially because the story is told in the form of Watney’s logs left behind to be found by whoever may come across them.
I can’t help but think, though, that Andy Weir kind of threw the baby out with the bathwater on this one. What does the “log” format really bring to the story? Sure, it’s kind of neat to read the very same logs that NASA will eventually see, but that alone does not add enough substance to the story to make up for the loss of hearing Watney’s inner monologue. I feel that if the entire story was told from the narrative point of view, (a log here and there would have been grand) I would have gotten to experience those bits of his character that couldn’t be conveyed through the text of his logs alone.
It seems like I’m really bashing Andy Weir here, but if I ever got to meet the guy, I’d thank him for writing such a powerful and endearing story. Yes, I feel that the characters could have been more fully developed and I wish Watney’s adventure wasn’t so linear and predictable. However, I bet that the first book I ever write won’t be near as good as The Martian.
I warned you, I was going to be critical. Like a concerned parent, I’m only being this way because I love it. This is a story about a man with a will to survive, and a planet full of people who are rooting for him to come back home. It’s impossible not to cheer along. My only wish is to have known more about the man I was rooting for and to feel what he felt; to stand in the boots of the first man destined to die on the Red Planet.
Goodreads Rating: 4.36
Recommended for: Adventurous Aeronauts, Wannabe Walter Mitty’s, The Curiosity Rover