Completed 1/9/2015, Reviewed 1/11/2015
I don’t read much brand new SF, mostly because it’s cost prohibitive and the wait lists at the library are extensive. I bought this book because it’s the January read for my SF book club. And I think I’ve found this year’s shoe-in for the Hugo award. “The Martian” is an exciting, hard SF take on the Robinson Crusoe tale. Mark Watney is left for dead on Mars after being skewered by an antenna during a powerful dust storm that forces the rest of his crew to abandon the mission. Alone on the hostile planet, he must use all his engineering ingenuity to survive until the next mission to Mars can rescue him.
What I liked best about this book was that the story was straight-forward. The characters are distinctand interesting and have almost no backstory to soap it up. They are very believable without being too detailed. The story keeps moving forward and the suspense is fast paced. It’s a tight adventure about a smart castaway.
The only thing that slows this book down is the aspect that I’m sure most readers will love and find very fast-paced, the engineering. In fact, this book isn’t so much science fiction as it is engineering fiction. Watney is a botanist and a mechanical engineer. Most of his story is spent on how he solves the problems Mars throws at him with his brilliant engineering mind. It’s a lot like McGuyver on Mars. I found it occasionally difficult to follow the detailed descriptions of the solutions to his problems. Then again, I’m not an engineer. Details often leave me glassy-eyed and bored. And I often found myself not really digesting the details of how Watney overcame the obstacles as much as reveling in his ability to do so. Keeping this perspective kept me on track when it could have easily derailed me.
The part that’s a little hard to swallow is that Watney never becomes depressed or defeated. He keeps plugging through even though he knows that there’s a greater chance of dying than surviving this ordeal. Engineering and a wicked sense of humor keep him going. He’s almost superhuman, having the ability to stay focused on his tasks rather than sinking into despair. I know I couldn’t do it. And I think a more realistic novel would have the character wallowing at least for a little while at some point in this ordeal. But that’s exactly what keeps the book fun, exciting, and readable.
This is no literary masterpiece by any means, but is a great pop SF novel. A lot of people who don’t normally read SF are going read it and enjoy it. I certainly did, despite my preference for prose and character development. It will be one of the few times I’ll be able to agree with the majority of folks at book club. “The Martian” easily gets four stars out of five.