I’ve seen the movie The Martian at least half a dozen times, and every time I find it uplifting, enervating, and inspiring. I’ve even written a blog post (called “Staying Alive: or, The Martian as an Allegory of the Human Condition“) in reaction to the movie; however, I’ve never read the book until now. I might not have sought it out, but I came across it at one of the little free libraries in the neighborhood. Sure glad I did.
The book follows the same basic plot as the film. Astronaut Mark Watney gets left behind on the red planet when his crewmates, thinking he has died in a sandstorm, have to abort their mission and leave. Lo and behold, Watney is not dead, and spends the rest of the book trying to stay alive. Once NASA becomes apprised of his survival, the entire world watches as top scientists do everything they can to rescue him.
Watney’s voice in the book is clever, erudite, and full of dark humor. He not only fights hard to keep from dying, but he keeps his spirits up as well. In fact, the book is so well-composed that entire passages seem to have made it into the screenplay almost intact.
The pattern that Weir follows (which is also evident in his other books Artemis and Project Hail Mary) is that he throws one crisis after another on Watney, who must use science, strength, and his wits to overcome them. Just when you think that Watney has solved it all and it will be smooth sailing, another catastrophe hits. This constant state of emergency is really not that much of an exaggeration. After all, Mars has an airless, freezing, inhospitable environment that is totally unsuited to human habitation.
All this makes for great thrills and adventure. Weir somehow manages to even make the hard science comprehensible and exciting. As I said, the film follows the book fairly closely, but there are a few more crises in the book, which I presume the screenwriter had to cut to keep the film within manageable length. The film also has one little bit that the book does not touch on: the brief scenes at the end in which we find out what happens to the various crew members of the Hermes. I like these scenes; I’m glad they added them.
As for the book, even if you have watched the movie and know how everything will turn out, it is still a great read. It carries you along as if you’re on a surfboard riding a wave or on skis on a downhill slope. It’s a tense, thrilling, satisfying ride, and I highly recommend that you take it.
I also enjoyed the book and find Weir’s writing enjoyable. I do have a profound problem with the book, however. In a book so dedicated to hard science, to “sciencing the shit” out of every problem, to long, multiple paragraph calculations of potato yields and fecal needs–the basic premise is wrong. The initial catastrophe that establishes the plot is a severe windstorm that nearly blows over the ship and prevents the protagonist from making it to safety. But in reality, the atmosphere on Mars is so thin that even the most extreme windstorm would barely have enough energy to move a leaf. It reminded me of Dan Brown’s “DaVinci Code,” which I enjoyed on first reading until, on further review, I realized that many of the historical references and plot devices are nonsense.When an author makes the decision to utilize reality as his foundation upon which to build his plot, I believe he has a duty to the reader to check his facts. Otherwise, write fantasy.