Mark Watney is not dead. His is on Mars, alone, with enough supplies to eat and breathe for one month. Everyone, including NASA and the rest of his crew, just think that he’s dead.
Now, he has to find a way to tell NASA that he’s still kicking, and keep kicking for four years until the next Mars mission arrives. All he has are the leftover supplies from the failed mission, and degrees in botany and mechanical engineering. And a pretty good sense of humor about the whole only human being on a planet of death thing.
It had been a long time since I read a real “Man vs. Environment” story, and I had forgotten how different the narrative can feel. Other plots unfold their obstacles slowly, leading to a naturally mounting tension near the end of the story. “Man vs. Environment” maintains almost exactly the same problem from the first page to the last page, and has a thousand half-solutions that keep the protagonist breathing before finally finding a solution. Tension doesn’t build so much as collect, and it becomes important to balance the story so that constant danger doesn’t become monotony. Weir pulls it off and delivers a novel with real momentum.
When I was describing this book to my little sister, however, I quoted an old favorite movie (2001’s A Knight’s Tale) and said that it was like watching Sir Ulrich VonLiechtenstein write a novel: “His style is rudimentary, but he’s fearless!” The text is often simple, but boldly includes every scientific term and theory that it can get its hands on, giving the story its raw science fiction feeling. The characterizations are a little thin – most of Mark’s crew and NASA’s decision makers are boiled down to one or two characteristics – but each of them contribute firmly to the eventual conclusion. Descriptions of the environment, whether inside NASA’s computer rooms or outside on dusty, red Mars, are so short as to be forgettable, but the tension remains palpable.
A large portion of the book is written as the transcriptions of logs that Mark recorded on Mars. While there was an implied audience (NASA, his crew, maybe even his own family and friends), Weir never used this implication. Mark never talks directly to anyone on those recordings, other than us. As the readers, we can feel Mark looking directly at us, relating the narrative. We feel, perhaps, like trusted colleagues, as he confidently rattles of chemistry and physics notes, but never truly forget that we are reading a story. We never believe that his logs are intended for anyone in his fictional world or that we are being given a glimpse of reality. It’s only what was scripted for us to understand the situation.
In the end, my biggest complaint about the novel is one of voice: the writing is inexact, and the characters always feel distanced from us. But the story… the story won’t let us go.
(I don’t think I will ever care that much again about the well-being of one hundred fledgling potato plants.)