I tagged this book as “Fiction — General” although it really should be tagged as “Science Fiction,” but I read so little sci-fi that I don’t have a tag for it. Jason read this book and enjoyed it so much that he kept reading me excerpts aloud, till finally I decided to read it for myself. It’s completely different from anything I would normally read — not only it is “hard” science fiction with a lot of realistic sciencey stuff that, to be honest, I kind of skimmed in places; it’s also a Robinson-Crusoe, man-struggling-alone-against-the-elements kind of story. I’ve explained before that I usually don’t like those kind of stories at all, but earlier this year I was captivated by Michael Crummey’s Sweetland which told that very kind of story. The Martian couldn’t be more different from Sweetland — it’s a short, snappy piece of sci-fi with no pretensions to be literary fiction — but it, too, managed to hold my attention with the story of a man who struggles alone, not on an island but an entire planet, to survive against the odds. Why was I interested in this type of story when I’m usually not? One word: voice.
The setting is the very near future, and engineer/botanist Mark Watney is left behind, presumed dead, when a manned mission to Mars goes wrong. But Watney’s not dead: he survives, alone on the planet with a big tent intended to support human life and a couple of vehicles, but no way to communicate with Earth or let anyone know he’s still alive. The situation requires almost superhuman courage, ingenuity and determination, but fortunately for the reader, Watney, as he reveals his story through a series of log entries, is also possessed of a snarky wit that makes his character jump off the page and makes it very easy to root for his survival.
My only disappointment is that you don’t get much backstory on Watney or much sense of his inner life beyond his determination to survive his Martian exile — which might be because it’s not that kind of book, might be because the story is largely told through his log entries which wouldn’t include that kind of detail, or might perhaps be because he’s a mechanical engineer and he’s not going to spend a lot of time reflecting on his past or his emotions. I loved his practical approach to his situation and his sense of humour, but I did feel that it should have taken more of a physical and emotional toll on him, and that there would realistically have to have been at least a few cracks in his otherwise cheery facade.
Though the character could have been a bit more layered, he’s got a great voice and he feels real immediately. As the story of his struggle to survive unfolds along with the story of the people on earth who are determined to rescue him against tremendous odds, I couldn’t put the book down. It was gripping, and I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys science fiction — and also to some people who usually don’t. Like me, you might find this an unexpected delight.