***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: The Martian is a nerdy, survivalist ride, chock full of science, mathematical calculations, suspense, and unexpected humor, but without enough exploration of psychology and trauma.
What happens. This might be the easiest summary I've ever written. Mark Watney is one of six crew members on the third Ares mission to Mars. The crew is on the surface when a powerful dust storm with high winds forces them to abort the mission. Mark is impaled by a flying antenna, the rest of the crew sees that his bio monitor readout indicates he's dead, and after a frantic search for him they give up and take their MAV back to the orbiting ship, the "Hermes." But, through a series of technological accidents (having mostly to do with how his space suit behaves after being breached), Mark is alive. He can't communicate either with Earth or with Hermes, since the wind storm destroyed the communications antenna. For all anyone knows, he's dead. His only hope is to figure out a way to communicate--for some sort of future rescue that he can't even imagine--or live long enough to make his way thousands of kilometers to the Ares 4 landing site, equipped with inadequate maps, where in four years another mission will arrive. Aside from depending on an oxygenator to make his air and a water reclaimer to conserve water--neither of which was designed with a longevity of four years in mind--Watney will not have enough food, even with the rest of the crew's fifty-days of meals available, and even if he eats 3/4 rations. But Mark is both an engineer with MacGyver ingenuity, and a botanist. And thanks to six convenient potatoes aboard (unlikely), he embarks on farming in his "habitat," the Hab, in pods, on lab tables, and anywhere else he can cultivate both a bio-rich soil (using his own feces as fertilizer) and potatoes. He also takes an arduous experimental trip in his rover to see if and how he'll manage the even longer journey to the Ares 4 site, which will take ninety days, and picks up Pathfinder along the way, allowing him to communicate with Earth...for a time. Eventually he fatally short-circuits the Pathfinder by leaning a drill against the wrong surface, and he's on his own again. He has to make it to Schiaparelli Crater, with no help from Venkat Kapoor, Bruce Ng or any of the other minds at NASA and JPL. There's a surprisingly large cast of characters, including the other five crewmates (Captain Lewis, communications Johanssen, the German Vogel, Doctor Beck, the pilot Martinez), and people on the ground (Annie the media-relations person, Mitch Henderson the head of NASA, Teddy Sanders the head of the project, Cathy of CNN's "Mark Watney Report," and Mindy Park, the PhD in charge of reading the satellite imagery of Mark's movements).
"This will make a great movie." That's what you think, the whole time you're reading. And yes, when Matt Damon is in the theaters as Mark Watney, I'll be in line with a ticket in my hand. But unless the screenwriters add some pathos, or unless Damon conveys an extraordinary amount of internal feeling to the audience on his own, this won't be one of those deep, complex stories of survival. It'll be cinematic, probably suspenseful, and satisfying. And it will make a ton of money. But Watney's victory will be a hollow triumph. You know the little undercurrent that made Tom Hanks's "Castaway" such a classic? It was watching him come to terms with his situation emotionally. It was seeing him grow from a person who has bought into the fallacy of a successful contemporary life, who is bound by the clock, to a man stripped to a primitive state--able to care for himself and be alone with himself. He gains his strength, and with it, a kind of inevitable vulnerability of never belonging. That's interesting. Mark Watney, on the other hand, was born with strength. He never loses it, never waivers, never has a moment of redemption. He solves every problem, and moves on to the next, wisecracking as he goes.
Paradoxically, we needed more Mark Watney. I liked his dark quips. I liked his geeky humor. I liked the fact that he never gave up--that he was such a problem-solver. But it wasn't enough. Most stories are about growth, in one way or another. And the truth is, there isn't a single human being ever, anywhere, even an astronaut, who wouldn't have moments of depression, panic, or hopelessness in Watney's situation--who wouldn't struggle not only with the logistics and the technology and the math, but also with the oppressive feeling of "aloneness" on an unpopulated planet, and with the greater probability of failure (death) than success (rescue). Yes, astronauts are trained to think on their feet in emergencies. ("Work the problem," Captain Lewis admonishes on Hermes when her crew realizes with dismay that they're off course.) But there was in fact a lot of down time for Watney in this book--a lot of time to ponder his situation, and the meaning of life. I wanted to dig deep enough to see that his humor was part coping mechanism. I wanted to hear more than just lip service to the loneliness that makes him say, "I haven't spoken to anyone in X days, and I miss talking to people."
In fact, the lack of growth extends to other characters in the book. We spend a fair amount of time with people in NASA, and the only one who shows any change is Mindy Park, who starts out a bit meek and becomes slightly more outspoken (but ineffectually so). There's some superficial talk about Captain Lewis's anguish over leaving Mark on Mars, but it's more like hanging clothing on a mannequin in a window: Lewis is the one with the commander badge on her jacket. She doesn't grow, but she does decide to embark on an unauthorized mission to retrieve him.
Andy Weir gave a Google book talk, and an audience member asked whether he was sending some sort of message by having a main character who's so "resourceful and optimistic in such a bad situation." Weir's response reveals a lot about him as a (fledgling) writer:
"I tried to make it a pretty upbeat book. It could have been really dark, and depressing, right? It's like the guy is trapped alone; he could be just having this crippling psychological problems of loneliness and all these other things that most people would face. I figure I can buy my way out of that by saying he's an astronaut. Astronauts are a cut above. And so he doesn't sink into depression, he just goes into problem-solving mode. And I made him this really flippant, smart-ass personality because I had to tell a whole story. If I'd done just blank narration, just like omniscient narration even, it would have just seemed like a technical manual or a really dry sequence of events. I needed something in the narration itself that would keep the user [sic] interested. And so having it told by a self-effacing, smart-ass seemed like a good idea." --Andy Weir [emphasis mine].
Let's analyze this comment. Loneliness is something "that most people would face." Exactly. And in fact, that's what literature is: examining the human condition, finding emotions that are universal and exploring them. As much as readers enjoy a character who has more skill than they do, as much as they root for him or her, they want to empathize. And by not showing any of Watney's internal life, Weir is in fact not telling "a whole story." Weir actually risks telling a "dry sequence of events" much more by omitting Watney's psychological issues than he would if he hadn't made him funny. The lack of an internal conflict in this novel can't be papered over with smart-ass Watney comments. His slip up in calling readers "users" indicates how much his brain is wired toward the technological. In fact, Weir repeats several times in the Google talk that "It was really important to me was that everything be as scientifically accurate as possible."
One sign of how little internal life there was in this book is the fact that the reader doesn't sense the passage of time. Watney spends eighteen months alone, but to us it felt only like a serious of solved problems. The "arc" of this book is: astronaut is stranded, he solves problems--some are thrown at him, and some result from his own actions in solving previous problems--and he's rescued.
The triumph is in the hard science. What Weir set out with determination to do, he did incredibly well. Everything seems plausible, with the exception of two things. One he admits to: a dust storm would not blow objects around on Mars, because the atmosphere is too thin (and the soil is too powdery to "sand-blast" anything). The other is the plot device of the potatoes. I may be entirely wrong about this, but I doubt NASA would send six raw potatoes up to space for the astronauts to bake for Thanksgiving dinner. Pre-cooked, vaccum-sealed, yes. But raw, with sproutable eyes? Nevertheless, everything else is lovingly researched. Weir even programmed his own simulation of orbital mechanics--basically what Rich Purcell must have worked on--to predict and follow the orbits of Earth, Mars, and Hermes. This program also allows Weir to know exactly what date it is on Mars and on Earth, and what the light distance is between them, and the transmission lag, all of which he included to create the timeline. Some of the equipment eluded me visually: I didn't have a sense of how big the rovers are, what the oxygenator looks like, and so forth. But how they function is clear, and how they break down and are repaired and are cannibalized by Watney in his repairs, too. Mars could have been a second character, but it's not visually explored much. Weir's strength is not in descriptive prose.
When you close the book, you're happy but...there's something missing. Weir tacks on a nice little soliloquy by Watney, noting how inherently caring human beings are, and how millions of people rallied for him, a single person, and how the Chinese gave up their own scientific aspirations for him, a stranger. But even this theme would have been so much more powerful if we'd seen more evidence of initial selfishness, and obliviousness--if we'd seen the growth (yes, there's that word again) of sentiment on earth. The rallying wasn't as moving as it could have been. Only Mitch Henderson tried to make the unpopular decision of balancing the safety of the Hermes crew against the possibility of rescuing Mark, and so there was little dramatic tension to show the inherent goodness of humanity.
One final note about the movie: I see in the cast list that Mindy Park is played by someone named Mackenzie Davis. Seriously? Andy Weir works in Mountain View CA for a tech company writing programs for androids. He has made an effort to have lots of strong women in this novel, and several ethnicities. There's no doubt in my mind--given the diversity he experiences in silicon valley--that Mindy Park is supposed to be Korean-American.