My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Martian came well recommended and I decided to give the audiobook a try. I’m glad I did, as it’s a highly, HIGHLY entertaining story I loved listening to and hated to finish. Even so it’s utterly ridiculous and basically a superhero story even while being technically outstanding, both in writing and realistic detail. The events depicted are logically and scientifically not only possible, but also probable. What makes the story utterly ridiculous is that all of the knowledge, capability, and ingenuity rely on one person. Not even MacGuiver would have figured out everything presented in this book. Though no doubt I totally aged myself with that reference. Anyway – the point is that the book is exceptionally entertaining while being a fabulously well-written science fiction novel. It’s just not likely to have happened that way. Does this matter? Probably not, ymmv.
Six days into a 31 day mission on Mars, the space crew encounters a dangerous dust storm that forces them to abort their scientific trip and return home. In the following chaos, Mark Watney is injured and thought dead. Upon waking up, Mark realizes he’s stranded on Mars with no way home and no way to even tell anyone he’s alive. He also has no way to survive. Thus begins an 18-month daily struggle for survival that tests Mark’s intelligence, ingenuity, humanity, and will to live. Nothing is easy on Mars and with only an old collection of 70s TV shows, disco music and abandoned equipment to keep him company, it’ll be a miracle if he survives.
Being a science fiction fan and a biologist myself helped me recognize that while the story plays on familiar tropes, the author has clearly done his research. There is so much detail and fact woven into the narration that sometimes the book can read like stereo instructions. The most entertaining and engaging instructions ever written but still, a litany of scientific principles, associated math, and the steps to achieve the desired result. I’ll admit once or twice I thought about fast forwarding to just get to the conclusion of the logic puzzle because while I always followed the intellectual thread and the science/math associated, sometimes I just didn’t care. However the author has done an exceptional job of interspersing humor amid the dry science to help readers stay engaged with the narration.
The character of Mark Watney is a smart ass. He’s sarcastic, irreverent, funny, obsessed over small details, and rightly fearful when mistakes happen. He’s basically an everyman personality, which makes him relatable and likable. The flip side to this is he’s also a genius. He’s basically an entire space crew within one man that can fix anything, create anything, and think of anyone. He is supposed to have a master’s degree in botany and mechanical engineering but truly he’s a genius at every task from chemistry to navigation to computers to anything that might come up. The story throws frequent challenges at him that vary from small to catastrophic and likely would require several brilliant minds collaborating to resolve. Instead one lone man with a penchant for gallows humor manages to mostly outthink them all. This is where the over the top aspect of the story comes in. It’s not that it kills the entertainment value, but instead puts too much god-like ability and intelligence in one man. Everything that goes awry and all the solutions to fix said problems are realistic and absolutely true to life. It’s just beyond comprehension that one man, considered the sixth and least important part of the mission, would encompass all that knowledge and ability.
That said if readers can get beyond that issue, if it’s even an issue, the story is simply pure fun. The truly excellent narrator, RC Bray, who did a fabulous job with the various voices, accents, and inflections, helps this. I highly recommend listening to the audiobook version as it gives Mark’s voice real life and energy. Most narrators are good, I won’t listen to a book with a narrator I dislike, but Bray easily stands out. He’s that good. Additionally the writing is clever, clean, and interesting. The large cast of secondary characters is less well developed and often flat. They’re vital to the story and their perspectives are essential but I always preferred to stay in Mark’s recordings. Often these characters would impart important plot points and information but they never had the same impact as Mark’s voice and point of view. It’d probably be impossible to give them the depth they needed so I didn’t count this against the book but I could tell my attention usually perked up when the story returned to Mark.
Overall this is an easy book to recommend. I loved listening to it and it’s one of those rare books that get better as it goes along. By the end, I could predict a lot of the actions and reactions but I found myself riveted to the story anyway. There are many points I laughed out loud on the street because it was that funny. I’d again recommend the audiobook but either way read this book. It’s easily one of my favorites of the year and I’ll be listening to it again and again.