Okay, okay, I know I’m late to the party with this one. The book came out in 2011 and the movie in 2015. But I have a good excuse. I have way too many books in to “to be read” pile.
And a quick note here before I discuss the book – I watched the movie, first. It’s not necessarily a controversial opinion, but I always prefer the book version of a story to the movie. Books are more descriptive, more immersive. Movie versions are often good (Harry Potter, The Shining, etc), but they still don’t give the same experience as words on a page…and having it play out in my imagination is far more fun than sitting in a theater.
At this point, I assume almost everyone has seen the movie or read the novel, or is at least familiar with the story. Basically, a group of astronauts are on Mars, there’s a sandstorm, they flee to the escape module, but one of them is hit by debris, considered dead, and left behind. Unfortunately, he’s only injured and is now stuck on the planet by himself with limited food and water and no way to get back to or contact the Earth.
Since the story is already out there, I want to instead focus on the writing, the narrative, and the way the story is structured. Basically, looking at it as a writer instead of a reader.
Andy Weir, the author, definitely did his homework with this. It’s science fiction with real science, which I adore. I mean, I love speculative and futuristic sci-fi where the writers come up with all sorts of amazing ideas for technology in the future or in alien civilizations. But when it’s real science, it makes the story more grounded for me. But Weir doesn’t overwhelm the reader with science and math. It wasn’t like reading A Brief History of Time (boy, was THAT a challenging read!). I’d describe it as conversational science and math. Like having Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining it to me.
The other thing I really loved about this book was the narrative. Weir has the protagonist, Watney, tell the story as journal entries, beginning immediately after he regains consciousness and realizes his situation. The majority of the book is written this way. It has a conversational tone, uncensored. Watney is telling his story as if writing a letter to a friend. He’s self-deprecating, cusses like…well, like an astronaut, and admits his mistakes and failings. It made his character all the more real. I could feel his frustration, his fear, and his longing.
The story switches back to NASA and follows a handful of characters there in a conventional, third-person POV. I think it was a good choice by Weir. It breaks up the narrative, changes the pacing and makes it more interesting for the reader. At least, it did for me.
The other interesting thing he did was, at several points in the second half of the book, switch to a third narrative voice. It was the omnipotent narrator describing something happening to Watney that neither he could tell us or the characters back on Earth could see or explain. These passages were brief and, again, I think were a good decision by Weir.
Of course, I’m always impressed when an author goes out of their way to research their topic. Luckily, Weir is already a nerd. He’s a programmer by trade, but has a love of physics and science. The background was already there and he used his knowledge to keep everything in the story grounded in reality. As I mentioned above, the science and math are real. Yes, it is possible to create hydrogen using chemistry and ingenuity. It’s also possible to grow potatoes in a hostile environment with just a handful of useful bacteria and a shitload of botany experience. And, well, a shitload of shit.
This was probably one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had. The story is incredibly fast paced, easy to read, and simply a fun adventure. Plus, astronauts. I’m a huge fan of the space programs, all of them, but especially NASA. Astronauts have always been heroes of mine, and I’ll admit that I teared up a few times when reference was made to their bravery and ingenuity. There’s one part where two NASA administrators are talking about a potential way to rescue Watney, but it’s extremely dangerous to the other astronauts. When one of them asks what the rescuers would think about the danger, the other admin replies, “Well, their astronauts”, insinuating that they don’t care. It’s all about the mission. To hell with the danger.
Yeah, this book could double as a NASA recruiting tool. Sign me up!
If you’ve only seen the movie, please, pick up a copy of the book. It’s so much better than the movie (not that the movie wasn’t great). I promise, you’ll enjoy the ride.