fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Martians by Andy Weir science fiction book reviewsThe Martian by Andy Weir

Mars has long had a somewhat cursed reputation in space exploration. Launch failures, midair explosions, crash landings. Probes that missed the planet completely. Probes we’ve never heard from again and still don’t know what happened. By the time of Andy Weir’s The Martian, though, things have been on a better trajectory for some time and humanity has successfully landed several expeditions on Mars. Mark Watney is the engineer/botanist on the third such expedition, Ares 3, which is just coming up on the end of their first week of a month-long stay. Unfortunately, this is where Mars’ checkered past comes roaring back in the form of a sudden huge sandstorm that forces an abort of the mission and a quick exit from the planet. Or, a quick exit for all of the crew but Watney, who through a freak occurrence is presumed dead and thus abandoned, leading to the novel’s classic opening line: “I’m pretty much fucked.” Yes. Yes, he is.

But luckily, like Daniel Defoe’s famous precursor castaway, Mark Watney is a pretty resourceful guy. And it helps that his two skills — mechanical engineering and botany — are nicely matched to his predicament — which involves growing enough food to stay alive until the next mission arrives (over a year) and fixing things that break down in that time (now the pilot, had he been left behind, would definitely have been fucked). And thus we pretty much have the pattern for much of the novel, which is told via Watney’s logs: Watney faces a deadly crisis, figures out a clever fix, good-naturedly soldiers on to the next deadly crisis, which he cleverly solves, and shampoo, rinse, repeat.

Surprisingly, it mostly works, though sometimes the writing does bog down a bit in the details, as we get passages like:

I started this grand adventure with 1500 hours of CO2 filters, plus another 720 for emergency use. All systems use standardized filters . . . Since then, I’ve used 131 hours of filer on various EVAs. I have 2089 left. Eighty-seven days’ worth. Plenty. Oxygen’s a little trickier . . . According to NASA, a human needs 588 liters of oxygen per day to live. Compressed liquid O2 is about 1000 times as dense as gaseous O2 in a comfortable atmosphere. Long story short: With the Hab tank, I have enough O2 to last 49 days. That’ll be plenty. Sirius 4 will be a do-day trip.

Just when this sort of thing starts to get repetitive, Weir smartly introduces an Earth point-of-view, as NASA learns that Watney is still alive. We still have clever people facing deadly crises and coming up with clever solutions, and still therefore get lines like this:

It means there’s a spot in the code base where it’s got the parse bytes. We can insert a tiny bit of code, just twenty instructions to write the parsed bytes to a log file before checking their validity.

But at least we get them in different voices. And the Earth team adds a nice bit of humor, which Watney already had in spades. In fact, for a book that moves from one near-death event to another, The Martian is surprisingly, regularly funny. Laugh out loud funny at times, as my wife can attest thanks to my annoying guffaws while she was watching TV next to me.

Eventually, another POV opens up, this belonging to Watney’s crew, now heading back to Earth aboard the Hermes, who are finally told of his survival about halfway through the book. While adding even more clever people cleverly coming up with clever fixes, this group also brings in a welcome emotional element that was mostly lacking until their arrival. This despite the fact that none are particularly well developed characters (the same holds true for the Earth characters).

While these additional POVs go a ways toward breaking up the repetitive nature of the plot, that repetitive nature doesn’t really change; it’s just clothed in different voices. That distraction works, but only temporarily, and I’d argue that lopping off about 100 pages (the book clocks in at 367) would have made for a tighter, much more compelling and exciting read. Certainly, by the time I’d reached about pages 250-275 The Martian’s repetitive nature was really making itself felt.

It helps that Watney is such a likable character — uber-resourceful, always with a ready (if foul-mouthed) quip in the face of Job-like circumstances, almost never getting down. In fact, one can almost believe that the worst things to happen to him are not the near-mortal ones, but the fact that the only entertainment he has is bad 70s TV and disco music. But while this is one of the strengths of the novel — that ready likability of the main character — it’s also one of the weaknesses, as one never gets a sense we’re really seeing the true Watney. Or at least, a full Watney. Surely, in all those days, we’d see some unlikable moments, or some philosophical ones. I get that we’re getting a log, and not an internal monologue, but I wanted to do more than skate along the surface, at least now and then. The closest we ever get to such moments, though, are lines like “I never realized how utterly silent Mars is. It’s a desert world with practically no atmosphere to convey sound. I could hear my own heartbeat. Anyway, enough waxing philosophical.” Or earlier, when just as we get a glimpse of Watney’s loneliness, he writes, “Okay, enough moping.” Personally, I would have preferred one or two fewer lessons in mechanical engineering survival skills and a little more moping and waxing philosophical.

A bit more depth, a more full sense of character, and a shorter story would have made The Martian a gripping, un-put-downable book I think. As it is, with a good-natured, funny, and likable if somewhat shallow protagonist facing an overly-long but mostly interesting and scientifically rigorous series of unfortunate events, The Martian was still quite enjoyable. I’d certainly be interested in seeing what Weir does as he matures as an author. Who knows — maybe Watney will volunteer to go to Titan next…

~Bill Capossere

The Martian by Andy Weir science fiction book reviewsImpaled by a communications antenna and blown into a sandstorm, Mark Watney is left for dead on Mars. By chance, he lives, but his crew has already left. Though he has no way to communicate with or return to Earth, Watney tries to survive anyway. Back on Earth, however, NASA learns from its satellites that Watney is alive and they try to rescue him. Unfortunately, even in the near future, space travel remains complicated and dangerous.

Well, that’s the plot.

The Martian is a hard sci-fi survival tale. Weir puts his protagonist in an impossible situation, comes up with schemes to help him survive, and then complicates those schemes with unforeseen obstacles (at one point, for example, the soil is too loose). Fortunately, Watney has a knack for improvising. While the plot may seem thin, it’s pretty fun watching Watney come up with ways to survive, even when surviving means watching reruns of Three’s Company or using one’s waste as compost.

The Martian will be a lot of fun for some readers — I liked it — but it has limitations. As much as I enjoyed reading about Watney’s many solutions to the problems he faced, I eventually found myself thinking “oh, another obstacle. How many pages are left?” I suppose I’m not cut out for being stranded on Mars. Still, there are a lot of journal entries that move through this sequence:

  1. Freak out (with a lot of cursing from an astronaut)
  2. Summary of the problem.
  3. Sleep.
  4. Next entry goes something like: “it looks like things aren’t as bad as I initially presumed. Here’s my plan.”

There are also a lot of countdowns to liftoff and a lot of griping about NASA’s bureaucracy and the politics behind its funding. There’s plenty of room for these technical details, but not much for character interaction (aside from some squabbling at NASA). It’s sensible for Watney to have few relationships given that he’s stranded on Mars, but even Robinson Crusoe had Friday, Tom Hanks had Watson, and John Steinbeck had Charlie.

At times, I also found Weir’s protagonist grating. Watney is Ares 3’s botanist and engineer, and he is described as being the person that links everyone in his crew together. But I found Watney’s jokes repetitive and sometimes awkward. At one point he writes to his crewmate that she’s attractive but ultimately a nerd; he’ll give her a wedgie the next time he sees her. Perhaps this is an accurate representation of the average astronaut whose personality brings the crew together, but I think most people don’t enjoy jokes of this sort for very long. Ultimately, I preferred Watney when he was trying crazy schemes to when he was typing boobs to NASA.

Many readers have compared The Martian to the films Apollo 13, Castaway, and Gravity. I did not find Weir’s novel as inspirational as these films. The final pages suggest that it’s amazing what people will do to rescue one another. True enough. However, it seemed that most of the novel was about how space was cool and dangerous. Much as I enjoyed Watney’s journals, I’m not sure I’d read his memoirs.

But The Martian is an otherwise fine debut. In fact, it often recalls Michael Crichton’s early techno-thrillers, especially The Andromeda Strain. There’s a convincing attention to technical jargon and specifications, and both authors prize ingenuity in the face of adversity and unforeseen consequences. I did not love Weir’s writing style, but, as with Crichton, I found that I’d gotten used to it within a few pages and eventually didn’t even notice it.

Besides, who has time for style, characterization, and deep themes anyway? I remember the ideas and the conflicts that drove Crichton’s books much more than the characters in them — but I do remember Crichton’s books. I don’t doubt the same will be true of Weir’s The Martian. Readers looking for a hard science fiction survival story about a man on Mars could hardly do better than Andy Weir’s debut novel.

~Ryan Skardal

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Martians by Andy Weir science fiction book reviewsMy son and I enjoyed listening to the audiobook version of The Martian together. I’ve got to agree with Bill’s and Ryan’s reviews. This was an exciting story that got bogged down occasionally with too many details and too much math. My ears glazed over during some of those sections and I kept thinking that this was probably better done in the movie (which I’m looking forward to seeing). However, all of these details did serve to illustrate just how complicated Watney’s problem was and how clever he and the NASA teams were. As Bill and Ryan point out, the story gets repetitive as Watney faces one set-back after another, yet his predicament is so compelling, and we didn’t really want it to be a cake-walk, did we?

I want to echo Bill’s desire for a little more philosophizing and even perhaps some brooding from Watney. His tone was breezy most of the time. While I liked Watney better than Ryan did, Weir could have made Watney’s situation tug at my heart a bit more by having him occasionally eschew Three’s Company for some time spent thinking about Earth, home, and what he was missing. I’m not sure why Weir chose to make Watney unattached, but the emotional turmoil of missing a wife and children (or even some friends!) would have elevated The Martian to something much more poignant. Weir missed an opportunity there.

The audiobook, which is 11 hours long, was published by Podium Publishing. The narration by R.C. Bray was perfect; Bray precisely captured Watney’s jaunty personality and dry humor. My son and I enjoyed this version and recommend it.

~Kat Hooper

Publication Date: February 11, 2014 Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there. After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive. Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first. But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

  • Ryan Skardal

    RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.