Let me just start by laying it out there: This is the best book I’ve read this year. You should go buy it.
Now with that out there, I can do my usual thing of analysing how this was written, try to get into the author’s head and understand what influenced him and why he wrote it the way he did. You can read about why this is my focus here.
There are some spoilers below, but it won’t spoil the read; it’ll be well worth you reading the book even if you read this review first.
The story follows Mark Watney, a stranded astronaut on Mars as he tries to survive and get rescued. For the most part, Mark’s situation is conveyed to us via his logbook and as such this is a bit different to the way a lot of books are told. Events are not in real time, they are told to you after having happened – but don’t worry, the author understands how to write it so that there is still suspense. A bad writer would have turned the book into an after-the-event retelling of a story, with no soul, but Andy Weir doesn’t do that.
The format provides certain advantages to the writer too and the author exploits them to the fullest. The fact the story is told as it is means that the author can set the reader up very easily. Take this example, the end of one log entry reads:
…Things are finally going my way. In fact, they’re going great! I have a chance to live after all!
Feeling pretty relaxed as a reader now, maybe even a hint of disappointment creeping in because of a lack of tension, right? Now read the next page:
LOG ENTRY: SOL 37
I am fucked, and I’m gonna die!
Now he’s really got your attention, you have felt what the character felt – you relaxed, got a bit complacent and it led to a mistake. A mistake that’s gonna kill you. Can you put the book down now? No. You cannot. Andy Weir actually just make it physically impossible for your brain to fire the neurons required to make you close the book. This is just one example, and it’s without the surrounding context, but the author pulls tricks like this throughout the telling of this story and very soon you’ll be on the edge of your seat, not daring to get complacent again.
The author also sows seeds of doubt, gives little suggestions that the shit’s going to hit the fan, but without giving too much away. You really experience the doubt and uncertainty that Mark Watney goes through. As a NASA astronaut, he is obviously pretty mentally strong, as well as able and multi-skilled but you do start to see the cracks after a couple of Martian months and his task to survive grows much harder the longer he’s there.
Character and Humour
Andy Weir excels at humour, and creates an incredibly likeable, sarcastic character as the lead. This guy is alone on Mars, no company, no communications, no way to get home, and with only the resources he was left with. So of course, from a storytelling point of view, it is essential that you, the reader, like the main character. Here are some examples of the smart-ass at work (and you’ll notice Weir is exploiting the format again, too):
…Time to chow down and see what the good commander brought along for music.
LOG ENTRY: SOL 38 (2)
Disco. God damn it, Lewis.
And while reflecting on his being the man in control who gets to make all the decisions:
Actually, I was the very lowest ranked member of the crew. I would only be “in command” if I were the only remaining person.”
What do you know? I’m in command
And there are other gems, one liners such as “Everything went great right up to the explosion.” and “Like, melting-the-pigeons strong…” and my personal favourite:
It’s true, you know. In space, no one can hear you scream like a little girl.
Funny. And the whole book is littered with stuff that will make you chuckle. I guarantee it.
Of course, all these jokes work better when you aren’t expecting them, as opposed to how it reads here under the heading “Humour” but hopefully you see what I’m getting at. All this helps to give the main character, well…character.
But the other characters — back on earth and in space — although playing less significant roles, are each distinct and well chosen. They come across a little like some of the characters in a Michael Crighton book, perhaps needing a little more development, but I think this is because the main story is on Mars and these supporting characters rightly don’t get a lot of page time.
As someone who used to work with very technically minded, infuriatingly frustrating software developers who seem incapable of picking up on social cues, I can tell you that Andy Weir completely nails those characters that inhabit similar geek roles at NASA. And before anyone who’s read it screams that these are negative stereotypes that don’t represent reality – you’re wrong. You only have to look at the tool who wore that offensive shirt from the ESA’s Philae/Rosseta team recently on international media to realise that even more extreme stereotypes of such people really exist in real life. This scientist apologised. They aren’t really bad, honestly, they’re just very different (read: weird).
Yes, it’s no secret to my readers that I’m a big fan of bacteria. So it was a nice bonus for me that the main character has botany skills and in attempting to grow food to survive, goes into some of the intricacies of soil bacteria. I’m also a big fan of growing veg, especially potatoes, so it was cool that potatoes were one of the few plants available to Mark Watney on Mars (I won’t go into why, read the book if you want to know why, there is a perfectly plausible explanation) – I do wonder though, whether Watney removed the flowers on the potato plants to divert all the energy to the tubers, or whether that is an unnecessary effort (opinion among vegetable growers always seems to be mixed). Being a botanist, I thought he might let me in on whether that’s really worth doing, or not.
Anyway — bacteria. Something I learnt then, was that bacteria when they are faced with a cold winter on Earth, don’t tend to survive, but come up from further underground where it is warmer and replace the dead ones. Who knew?
Science and Survival
But it’s not just bacteria that are cool. The story paints a pretty realistic picture of what it might be like to be stranded on Mars, having to make do with your limited resources and being forced to Jerry rig everything and take insane risks. We have Mark Watney attempting to turn hydrazine rocket fuel into water in the most dangerous and makeshift way imaginable as a result of these circumstances, and such attempts are very entertaining and would appeal to your average reader as well as those interested in their science and space survival.
My guess is that Andy Weir is a bit of a geek. He probably has a stacks of sci-fi movies and television-series on DVDs; the obvious ones like Star Wars and Gravity, but also the more obscure ones like Earth 2 (that was totally awesome, and should have got another series) and maybe even Primer. He no doubt has space-related programs on the Discovery Channel on series link and he’s hoping for a museum-quality replica NASA flight jacket for Christmas. He has a subscription to New Scientist which arrives through the mail, and he still has his Fisher-Price telescope in the attic from when he was a little boy, because he couldn’t bare to part with it. (Okay, that last bit was me). But in seriousness, he clearly either follows the detailed space program and the theories they come up with, or he researched them thoroughly for the book. Either way, I approve because he thoroughly understands his subject matter.
And I suspect he has watched Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and thought he could have done a better job by making it into a different kind of movie. And he’d be right. Talking of movies, 20th Century Fox bought the rights to the film and Ridley Scott is directing the movie in which Matt Damon will star as Mark Watney. It’s due for release in 2015 and is likely to be pretty awesome. Not bad for a story which started life, freely available on Andy Weir’s website a few years back.
I’d also bet that Andy Weir has a background in software development or a related field, the NASA science engineers in his book are too accurate to be by chance. I suppose, maybe, he actually worked at NASA…that would make a great deal of sense —— Nope, just checked on Wikipedia (which cannot lie) and he has a “background in computer science.” Awesome. I bet he wasn’t a test engineer though. The guy responsible for the safety checks and inspection of an all important NASA rocket is asked by the flight director how long he needs (they’re in a hurry to get supplies to Mark on Mars) he points out it takes 10 days. Under pressure he concedes that the inspections only find a critical fault about one in about forty launches and therefore agrees to cut them completely. Now, as someone who used to be responsible for Quality in a large software company, I can assure you that any engineer who was good enough to work for NASA would have pointed out that the rush job they were doing meant the risks were seriously amplified and would have argued for an extra ten days on top of the usual ten. But he didn’t, and you can guess that things don’t go smoothly. The guy responsible for the inspections almost killed Mark Watney. Anyway, I digress.
As I’ve already said, the book is quite unconventional but the style is very easy to read and get along with and Weir is able to get across technical details without your needing a PhD to understand what’s going on. Even when we see the efforts on Earth to find a way to rescue their astronaut, and the style becomes more mainstream, it doesn’t jar the reader.
Does it lack anything?
A harsh critic might complain that the story lacks a villain. And it’s true, strictly speaking. Of course, you have to consider the type of story this is. It’s a story that could be true and it is about the human endeavour to explore, and to survive. Seeing it for what it is, you understand that Mars is the baddie in this story, and it’s a right bitch.
Given the point of the story, the climax is obviously Mark Watney’s ultimate survival and rescue from Mars. Just like in the Apollo 13 film, the climax is the fact they get home safe. The author understands that space exploration is ultimately a human attempt to understand and better ourselves even if that means it is dangerous, because we aim to overcome those obstacles, and that the attempt itself, along with how we respond as the human race when something goes wrong, perhaps represents the best of us. It was the right way to end the story.
I guess on a personal level that isn’t always my experience though. I do wish that it didn’t take a high profile space mishap to get humans demonstrating that they care about each other. I guess that’s what it takes to get through people’s apathy in life, to get them to take a second and watch, take in what is really going on and take a small action toward fixing the problem. Maybe then people would notice the 4 millionish people — including children — who suffer from ME/CFS, one of the most devastating diseases in the world, for which there is currently no treatment, and sadly, very little research aiming to correct this. There are many awful diseases out there, but is any which effects so many but has so little help? Please take a moment to check out some very promising research that patients are desperately trying to raise funds for, and think about contributing to help the many who are in real need of rescue right here on Earth: The Microbe Discovery Project.