Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg
March 29, 2017
Genre: Science fiction/action and adventure
Rated: Borrow it (but definitely watch the movie!)
I came at The Martian by Andy Weir backwards; that is, I heard about the movie first and then the book. When the movie came out in the theater, I just had to go watch it. A film about an astronaut who goes to Mars, gets stranded, and becomes part of a worldwide mission to come home? Yes, please!
I guess, too, that because Interstellar had come out the year before The Martian, I still had space on the brain. Interstellar dealt with wormholes and black holes and time travel and all sorts of theoretical stuff, but more than anything it was breathtakingly gorgeous on the big screen. When I walked into The Martian, I hoped for the same sort of experience.
The Martian doesn’t have the wide sweeping landscapes of space that Interstellar does, but the movie more than made up for that lack with optimism, humanity, and Matt Damon’s charm and wit. So, of course, I had to read the book to find out just how much of Mark Watney was in Matt Damon and how much of Matt Damon was in Mark Watney. In fact, after I left the movie theater I went straight to a store and bought the book.
For one reason or the other, I didn’t get around to reading it until last week. I’d just watched the movie again—this time at home on TV, which didn’t do the magnanimity of the film’s cause justice—and I thought it was time to read the book. So finally, finally, I did.
By this time, I’d heard the story behind the book as well. That Andy Weir is a science geek, in the best sense of the word, and that he has a deep fascination with and appreciation for space. That the book started out as a self-published novel, got picked up by Crown Publishing and then Broadway (both imprints of Penguin Random House,) and not long after that it got made into a movie. That scientists across the board vetted Weir’s work and declared it fairly sound.
As in, they think they could use one or two ideas from the book in real life. In real missions. On. Mars.
How cool is that?
A quick recap of the story: In the near future (Wikipedia puts it at 2035,) Mark Watney is part of the third mission to Mars. Six people have arrived on the Red Planet to collect samples and conduct experiments. A few sols (the Martian equivalent of days) into the mission, a major storm comes thundering across the landscape. When the astronauts decide to abandon the mission, they rush toward the shuttle that will take them back to the space station known as Hermes.
Mark Watney, the team’s botanist and mechanical engineer, gets injured and collapses in that headlong run toward the shuttle. After a quick assessment, the other astronauts determine that Watney has died. With a great deal of reluctance, they go to the shuttle and leave Mars. They’re heartbroken. They really liked Watney, and the fact that they’re leaving someone behind weighs on them.
Except Watney didn’t die.
He finally regains consciousness and then the realization that the crew left him behind. His most immediate problem is the piece of antenna that impaled him when some of the main communications gear broke away during the dust storm. Once he takes care of that—nothing a little impromptu surgical procedure won’t fix—he has to figure out how he’s going to survive. Because you can’t exactly, you know, live like a human on Mars.
Watney comes up with ingenious solutions. His background in botany kicks into overdrive, and he manages to grow potatoes inside the astronauts’ habitat (or Hab) from spuds that NASA sent with the team for Thanksgiving. He forages among the existing equipment and figures out how to use old rovers to rebuild his communication system with NASA. Most of all, he manages to keep his self-deprecation and sense of humor intact.
In fact, for someone who’ll probably die on a neighboring planet, Watney is pretty chipper.
Back on Earth, NASA engineers and scientists start pulling all-nighters to figure out how to bring Mark home. What results is a worldwide effort, an example of the absolute best in humanity, to make sure one person makes it back alive. It’s realistic and idealistic all at the same time.
The book and the movie both made me tear up during those moments of solidarity. Why, I wondered, can’t people in different countries just get along more often? It sounds like a wistful wish, and, really, it is. So many people in the world today need help; they’re fighting their own versions of Mark Watney’s story. Yet we find it so easy to ignore them or even to discriminate against them.
To say we won’t help them at all, even.
When it comes strictly to the book, however, I have to say that this is one of those rare instances—and I could only name three before this—that the movie was actually better. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that the book and movie work best in conjunction with one another. The book gives readers the luxury of more information on minor characters and an added subplot. The movie takes the best the book has to offer and compresses it in an accessible manner.
That accessibility, in the case of The Martian, is crucial. Weir’s enthusiasm for his characters and his story come through loud and clear. I’ve never read any interviews with him, but somehow I get the sense that Weir put a lot of his own heart and soul into Mark Watney. There’s an intimacy the book offers that usually only happens when writers take the best of themselves and infuse their protagonists with it.
With that enthusiasm comes a whole bunch of science. As in, enough to keep high schoolers busy all four years. It’s so incredibly detailed that non-science people will probably start skimming after the first five or 10 pages of it.
I’ll be honest, I tried to read through the first 60 or 70 pages of the science stuff. Then I heard someone talking about the book and their cheerful admission that they skimmed the science. I breathed a sigh of relief and started skimming too.
It’s easy enough to do once readers get past the initial shock—and, let’s be honest, delight—of Weir’s premise. Readers, especially American ones, love to cheer for the underdog. Weir makes sure Mark Watney comes across the underdog but never the loser.
I did appreciate the extended story of some of the minor characters. For example, in the book Mindy Park starts as a mousey sort of girl who works in satellite communications and becomes an important person. She still remains a minor character, but we get a greater sense of her voice—and her own sense of humor—in the book. The movie doesn’t quite do her justice, and I wish the filmmakers had given her character another handful of lines.
I also liked the backstory in the book on what went wrong with the supply shuttle that NASA tries to send to Watney as well as what damages the Hab. The space within a movie doesn’t allow for technical explanations, but a novel does so it’s fun to get those details. The book also goes into an extra subplot late in the story about an extra challenge Watney undergoes, and it’s not a small one. Again, I wish the movie had the time for it. I did hear about an extended DVD version, but because I haven’t seen it yet I don’t know if the extended version addresses the extra material.
Overall, the movie was a lot of fun, both on the big screen as well as at home. I’m glad I read the book, but in this rare case I think the movie functions as its biggest asset. Did I want more from the movie? Yes, of course. Did the book give that to me? In some places, yes, absolutely, and then some.
Weir also proved that his writing does contain a lyrical quality. Late in the book, almost to the end, he starts a chapter like this: “They gathered. Everywhere on Earth, they gathered. In Trafalgar Square and Tiananmen Square and Times Square, they watched on giant screens. … ‘Go,’ said Watney from the MAV. A mild cheer coruscated through the crowds worldwide.”
I don’t know if he’s planning to write another book. A quick search on Facebook and other online sources reveals that Weir is thoroughly enjoying the conversation that The Martian generated years ago. I’m curious about what he might do next and whether that story will also get turned into a movie.
And whether that one will be just as science-y.