You will need more than a year of high school chemistry to understand most of the language in The Martian by Andy Weir, but even without it you will find much to love in the novel’s sarcastic sometimes-narrator, Mark Watney.
In the book, Mark is left behind when a storm on Mars causes his five fellow crew-members to abort the mission and leave the planet. Not only is Mark alone with limited supplies, but he is also believed to be dead by his former crew, NASA, and his parents on Earth. As the mission’s botanist and mechanical engineer, Mark must ration food, deal with mechanical failures, and make contact with Earth in order to survive. Instead of succumbing to clichés, Weir throws surprise after surprise at the reader. Mark does not go insane nor stew in his isolation, but remains a resourceful character who overcomes every impossible situation thrown his way.
At the same time, Mark’s entire life revolves around the complex components of the HAB, rovers, and every machine that would have sustained the aborted mission. Weir’s language is uncompromising with its impressive specificity, adding authenticity to the text. Whilst this demonstrates the author’s evidently impressive knowledge on the subject, the writing is hard to follow at times and the reader often emerges with only a vague idea of whatever occurred. Only Mark’s reactions are fool-proof ways of knowing if the outcome of the scene was favorable. Despite the technical jargon, Mark is a funny and relatable narrator. While we know little about him personally (aside from his father’s driving habits), the reader can celebrate Mark’s victories and fear for his life because Mark is neither self-pitying nor unhinged. In fact, he keeps his sense of humor through every scenario and there is comedy in every other line. A personal favorite quip occurs as Mark enjoys one of his meals. He laments, ‘I’ll spend the rest of the evening enjoying a potato. And by ‘enjoying’ I mean ‘hating so much I want to kill people.’’
Fortunately, we do not experience Mars solely through Mark’s eyes. Mark’s situation and thoughts are described in first-person log entries that are kept like a diary. Additionally, we meet the team at NASA that is fighting to save Mark. The scientists attempting to understand Mark’s situation, like Venkat Kapoor, somewhat sate our desire to know if Mark will be saved. Annie, the head of public relations for NASA, swears like a sailor even at NASA head honchos like Mitch and Ted. Every character is snarky, edgy, and free to express their frustrations, save one socially awkward scientist who seems more rooted and restrained than his swearing, sleepless coworkers.
Still, small faults can be found in the text. Half-page conversations between the crew and their families can seem unnatural and artificial. Similarly, a relationship between two crew-members receives three mentions in the book and is resolved far too quickly. In addition, the NASA scientists are rarely chastised for impetuous or rude comments. Perhaps our ignorance of Mark’s personal life is for the best, as interpersonal relationships do not appear to be Weir’s strong suit.
Nonetheless, The Martian is an engrossing and funny read. One can only hope that the movie is able to convey Mark’s humor and the perils of his quagmire without becoming overly sentimental or alienating the viewer. If anybody else but Weir had written this book, it may have been a slow, sad affair with a clichéd protagonist. As it is, you will laugh, stress, and celebrate with Mark even as you lose track of the scientific jargon.