Lucas Bale

Award-Winning Speculative Fiction Author

The Martian, by Andy Weir – A Review

Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.
— Mark Watney, on Mars

On the face of it, The Martian is a very simple book to write. Firstly, Andy Weir’s concept is a compelling one and history has shown us it was always going to appeal to audiences – a single man, alone and facing extreme adversity, and fighting for his survival, is one which seizes attention. Couple that with the landscape of that adversity being Mars – where the three most important features of our existence are missing, oxygen, water and food – and we know immediately, his time there is limited. There is a clock running and the suspense is building. Once you have that concept, the hard work is seemingly already done.

Additionally, the tone is conversational – an educated man explaining events to friends. It reminded me of Andy McNab’s Bravo Two Zero crossed with Andy Cave’s Learning to Breathe. The act of writing the book, stringing together the sentences and pouring through the pages, cannot have been a tricky task for Weir as I know he spent three years researching his topic. It shows. It's why this book is so utterly compelling – it's real. We're there. We're next to Watney, as terrified as he is – that slow-burn terror of an inexorable death that drifts in slowly from eh horizon.

Yet, the reality is the task facing Weir was far more difficult. He solved the problem of creating his narrative voice through a device which is not particularly inspired – a ship’s log – but is nevertheless clever for two reasons. Firstly, it allows Weir a simple narrative voice, that of his protagonist, and the ability to see into his mind clearly. We identify with him completely and quickly. We are with him. We want him to survive. We are him. Secondly, we don’t know, from the outset, if he survives. The log is a permanent record and remains whether he survives or not. So, uninspired? Or simply taking advantage of the most effective way to tell his story? Does it matter – Weir uses a device which works.

And he uses it to great effect.

Initially, the POV shift to third person NASA took the story in a direction I was unhappy about – the strength of this book was Watley's narration and our insight into his character through his thought processes. His humour came through, his unwillingness to give in. Segueing to the third person from the first person is a technique I find contrived and disconcerting – if I am viewing events through the eyes of a (first person) non-omniscient narrator, to then see them through the eyes of an omniscient narrator in the third person simply does not work. Additionally, I was not convinced the story needed it, but the reality is it does build tension and it gives us a much-needed break from the sometimes too technical "this-is-what-I-did-next" Watley (nice as he is). So, I am willing to forgive the first-person/third-person contrivance because it drives the story nicely and I genuinely don't think Weir could have achieved what he did achieve – narrative flow and strong tension – any other way in the context of the story he was telling and the way he was telling it.

Characterisation of Watney is excellent – we believe him from the very first moments. "I'm pretty much fucked. That's my considered opinion." In those eight words, we are told everything we need to know about Watney's personality. The subtle dig within the words "considered opinion" suggested his expertise and what he now thinks of it. We immediately know he's in trouble. We are compelled to read on, we simply cannot but read on. "I don't even know who'll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now." First person convention blown – we don't know if he's getting out of this. We see this log, and his scattered, dried bones beside them, being handled by astronauts years, even decades from now. All bets are off. This is serious. This is Into the Wild.

The technical aspects of the story are integral to suspension of disbelief. Wanted (and so Weir) has to explain it to us because this is a story about fumbling for the final threads on frayed fabric, and somehow painstakingly sewing them into an escape plan. Every single thing Watney does needs scientific explanation otherwise the drama of his escape evaporates. Yet Weir manages to convey this in Watney's engaging, conversational tone so we don't despair at the detail. We love it. The quote I began this review with is the most telling example of the entire book: "Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped." So simple, so obvious, so much said in the sort of tone which implies 'What, you didn't know that?'

The Martian has won all sorts of awards and plaudits and Matt Damon is set to play Watney. Ridley Scott famously doodled on his script, demonstrating just how captured his imagination has been by this brilliant book. It's a book we need, just like Interstellar was a film we needed. Something to persuade us that there is life beyond the confines of this one planet – that we can make it to the stars and beyond and that our seemingly petty differences pale in comparison to the vastness of the possibilities which lay in wait for us. Just as Robinson Crusoe captured the public's attention, so too will The Martian.

For me, the cover shift was an error. I think the first cover (the UK Amazon cover) is far superior to the US cover. The sweat; the beard; the eyes which contain fear and determination – all of it conspires to create an utterly compelling cover. The tagline is pretty compelling too. The second cover, an anonymous spaceman bounding across Mars does nothing to impart the tension of the novel. It's almost comical – which the novel's main voice is too, but this actually adds to the tension rather than detracting from it.

 

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All words copyright Lucas Bale, 2015