Reviewing - The Martian
My reviews on this site will focus on story components. While primarily I made this decision because it allows me to compare many forms of media, it is also because I think that a bad story isn’t made better with shiny special effects. In these reviews, I will differentiate between core story components and peripheral content problems. While it would be great if stories had no problems at all, I contend that a story with solid core components can be great and still have a few little problems, but if the core components aren’t there then the story will not be enjoyable.
Anyway, let’s get on with it.
If there is any book to choose as the first to review on my blog, it would have to be Andy Weir’s The Martian. I love hard sci-fi, which is not to say that I don’t love stories with warp engines and teleports, but hard sci-fi has owned a special part of my heart since I first read Jules Verne.
The Martian was self-published in 2011, and purchased by a publishing house in 2014; the same year the movie rights were also optioned. The movie adaption was directed by Ridley Scott and starred Matt Damon. For the purposes of this review I’m specifically talking about the book and not the film, but the film is great; if you haven’t seen it, make the time. The film is so good that when I saw it at the cinema I actually heard a teenager at the end of the film ask “Did that actually happen?” Which, aside from the worry it brings about science education in Australia, I took to be a huge compliment to the film.
The core components of The Martian are why the story quickly became acknowledged as a masterwork in the Man against Nature - Labyrinth genre. The story of a person stranded far from home struggling to outwit a complicated environment has long captivated audiences; with stories like the Minotaur of Crete, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Dafoe, Lost in Space, and many others.
Mark Watney is stranded on Mars and forced to use his own wits to survive. He overcomes obstacles using his skill, and a bit of luck, but he has plenty of failures as well. The character is plausible and likeable. Watney earns everything he has and struggles with the confinement and isolation that a three-dimensional character should have in his situation.
Using whatever metric for story analysis you like, the Hero’s Journey, the Kubler-Ross Change Curve, the Story Grid, or any other; you will find The Martian hits every beat. The difference between a good story and a great story, however, is that a good story will hit every beat, but a great story will do it in an innovative way. The Martian is a great story. It sets up a hard science fiction world then solves all of the problems without betraying the world, which in hard sci-fi is quite a challenge.
The only negative criticism I have for The Martian is that some of the peripheral story content is a little wonky.
Hard sci-fi is based around as much verifiable science as possible, but there is an allowance for poetic license. For instance, the story has a water reclaimer which is near perfect. This is a piece of technology that we need to figure out before we can go to Mars, and we are getting closer to all the time, but right now we don’t have. It isn’t a problem for me that Watney just has a water reclaimer, or doesn’t need to deal with radiation, it is just a rule of the universe he lives in and it is constant; so I’m fine with it.
I should also mention that when the book was written the consensus of the time was that Mars’ surface had very little water on it, making most of the first act about the search for water. In 2015 the results of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter found that there is quite a bit more water on Mars than we had previously thought, making much of Watney’s struggle superfluous. There isn’t anything that Weir could do about that, and it is a constant in Watney’s universe, so I’m fine with it.
However, as a nerd with a Chemistry degree, the small peripheral problems with the story are that some of the chemistry isn’t consistent. I’m sure that the layman would never notice, but there is a moment when there is an explosion where the pressure change is described, and if that were the case then Watney would have been melted. At another point, Watney mixes 200 litres of hydrogen with 100 litres of oxygen to make 300 litres of water. The formula for water is 2:1, but you need to account for density, a litre of one substance does not necessarily mean it has the same number of atoms in it as a litre of another substance and when they react they will not form the same number of litres combined.
And yes, before you ask, I did the maths on both of these things.
Even so, neither of the problems I described above are core problems, both could be fixed by changing a couple numbers, and there is no reason to think that Weir, who is a trained computer programmer, should be 100% up to date on the science. The only reason they annoy me while I'm reading the story is that they aren't consistant with the universe.
While not perfect, The Martian is the best hard sci-fi book I’ve read in a long time. If you haven’t read it I recommend that you do so immediately.