The story of how The Martian came to prominence is almost as interesting as the novel itself. Almost. It’d be tempting to call it a great American success story, except this would imply that author Andy Weir wasn’t successful until he became an author; as he has apparently been a professional software engineer since he was a teenager, I’d say it’s fair to assume he already passed any reasonable measure of success. But without disparaging that, his literary success is still quite a feat. Weir was the author of a couple of webcomics, and then began self-publishing short prose stories on his website. After one such story, The Egg, became fairly popular online, he began writing his first novel, The Martian… which he also published on his website. Some of his readers started asking for a Kindle version of it, to make it easier to read than a web page, so he self-published the eBook and set it for the lowest price Amazon would accept. Then it hit Amazon’s best-seller list. Then Random House contacted him to purchase the publishing rights. Then it was licensed to Fox to be given a film adaptation, which will be out this November starring Matt Damon. It’s a result that most amateur writers wouldn’t dare to dream of.
So what kind of novel garners that kind of effect? A very good one.
The Martian is a title that sounds like it might be old 1950s-style “soft” sci-fi, about an alien visitor. It’s almost exactly the reverse — in this case, the Martian in question is a human visitor to Mars, and the book is very much “hard” sci-fi. (For those not familiar with the terminology, “hard” and “soft” science-fiction refer to the degree of realism that the author is going for. “Soft” sci-fi, such as Star Wars and Star Trek is willing to engage in vague hand-waves and technology that may not technically be possible at all. “Hard” sci-fi sticks to technology that, even if sometimes futuristic, is realistic given what we know of the universe, and if there’s something dubious, it tries to explain it reasonably.)
The “Martian” of the title is NASA astronaut Mark Watney, a crew mate on the third manned mission to Mars. As the book blurb says, he’s one of the first people to live on Mars… and he’s pretty sure he’ll be the first person to die there. A sandstorm causes his team to have to abort their mission early, and during preparations for departure, a freak accident knocks both Mark and his diagnostics system out, causing the rest of his team to believe he has been killed. They reluctantly leave without him, and he recovers consciousness shortly later, finding himself stranded on Mars with no means of communication.
There is a risk with hard sci-fi, in that if you want everything to be plausible, you have to explain anything which might seem questionable — and if you do that, the explanation might be dry and boring, and render the story dry and boring. The Martian avoids the latter pitfall. Though everything is scientifically sound and explained, the explanation is never dull, largely due to the very human (and smart-alecky) voice that Mark is given. And the excitement of the situation amply makes up for any possible lull caused by the periodic explanations of just how Mark scrambles together a plan to survive, to find some way of communicating with NASA, and hopefully to find some way to get back home.
The story is partly told in diary format from Mark’s point of view, and partly in third-person narrative. The first transition between the two is a little jarring due to the surprise of it, but after that it flows smoothly. After a while of reading it, I began to feel as if I knew when a logical transition was going to take place. On a strictly technical level, it’s a very well-crafted book.
But it’s well-crafted on more than just the technical level. This is a book that is often exciting or thrilling, occasionally touching, and frequently funny. Anybody who thinks hard sci-fi is automatically dry or dull hasn’t read this book. Just the opening lines should dispel any notion that it’s going to be a monotonous affair.
“I’m pretty much fucked. That’s my considered opinion. Fucked.”
It’s a bit risky to open the book with vulgarity, but by doing so it establishes a combined sense of danger and of humor with its eloquent profanity. And this is a book that takes a few risks here and there with its storytelling. Because of the way the story is written, we don’t know what the outcome will be. Even though it’s mostly first-person, the main character isn’t relating the story to somebody else directly, he’s writing in a log that he hopes will be found later no matter what eventually befalls him. With this narrative device combined with the occasional third-person chapter, it’s easy to believe that the numerous dangers Mark faces could kill him, and the story could end in tragedy. The switching between first and third person is an unusual narrative decision, but it preserves the best elements of both: the human feeling of first-person and the element of uncertainty of third-person. Combined with the clever and quick prose and the intriguing plot, and it’s easily a novel that will keep a typical reader on edge. I sometimes gauge how exciting a novel is by how quickly I read through it. I read all 385 pages of The Martian in the course of two days.
It’s a great book. And with any luck, the adaptation should make for a great film.