The Martian isn’t a page turner; I found myself putting it down again and again in the week it took me to read it. Not because it was so thought-provoking that I had to take some time to ponder what I’d just read, but because the cliffhangers made me want to take a break and do something else. Every forty or so pages, something else would go wrong, and I just didn’t feel like finding out what it was for a while. Lots of books you just rush through in an effort to find to what’s happening next; The Martian’s that odd one where you don’t want to know what’s going to happen next, in much the same way that some TV probably works better if you have a whole week between episodes to wonder what’s coming, and to decompress from the world of the show so that the next time you dip in, it still seems fresh and clever.
The book itself is so simple and linear that it seems almost like a throwback to the fifties; protagonist gets stranded on Mars when a NASA mission goes wrong, and struggles to survive until he can somehow be rescued. The elevator pitch would have been Robinson Crusoe. In Space! and you could have sold it any time between Jules Verne and the death of print. All that would have differed would have been how frank the dialogue was and the practical specifics of space travel; Weir is grounded about how cramped and difficult astronaut life can be, in a way which never occurred to our wide-eyed forebears. In the Golden Age, everything worked on slide rules and space ships were as roomy on the inside as space itself was on the outside. Today we’ve got a better understanding of just how unyielding the physics is; there’s no room for comfort in space; there’s barely room for people at all.
Trying to save Mark Watney, our intrepid hero, winds up risking another five lives and costing uncountable sums of money, a problem which is only addressed in the very last paragraph of the book. Which is also very 1950s; today’s SF writers would be more likely to make the whole book about whether it was worth spending that kind of money to save a single life, or at the very least would have made more of the idea that saving a single life could bring real benefits by getting so many people to work together. But for the most part, Weir is focused on solving each of the practical problems which come up, one after the other, for the survival and rescue. It’s, I suppose, a very manly book. There’s not much thought about how people feel, and a lot of thought about “Have you tried doing this?”
And after a while, that doesn’t feel like quite enough in an otherwise well-written book. As each practical problem came up, I’d stop reading for a bit, because inevitably there would be a solution to that practical problem, and then another one would come up. There wasn’t very much variety from that rhythm. Weir’s Watney is good company as he tries to joke himself from one crisis to the next, but it’s only now, as I sit and think about what to say about the book, that I appreciate that he’s almost as much of a cipher as the side characters. He’s busy, and we see him being busy, and we get a sense of what he’d be like to work with, but as the book ends, we still know almost nothing about him beyond how he responds to the parade of disasters which comes his way. He is the quintessential everyman hero of early Robert Heinlein; indomitable, dauntless, inventive and knowledgeable, but somehow not there at all as a person.
The Martian was a 21st century overnight success, by which I mean that it started out as something self-published on the internet three years ago and then got a proper book deal and enough exposure that I bought a copy. But it probably didn’t need a book deal so much as it cries out to be made into a movie; it’s got everything a movie needs; resourceful protagonist, endless setbacks to be overcome and a high octane climax full of relentless, risky improvisation. And a movie wouldn’t be bothered at all by the lack of depth to the characters; everyone in the book has just enough to make for easy casting. So expect a movie. And if they can get the right guy for Mark Watney, expect a good one. The Martian is camera ready.