Fiction Reviews

The Martian

(2013/4) Andy Weir, Del Rey, 7.99, pbk, 369pp, ISBN 978-0-091-95614-1

Notes on comparisons with the cinematic adaptation at the bottom of the book review below.


Back cover blurb

I'm stranded on Mars.

I have now way to communicate with Earth.

If the oxygenator breaks down, I'll suffocate.
If the water reclaimer breaks down I'll die of thirst.
If the habitat breaches, I'll just kind of explode.

If none of those things happen, I'll eventually
run out of food and starve to death.

I'm screwed.


I don't usually start a review with the cover blurb, but this sets the scene so well. Mark Watney is part of NASA's Ares 3 mission on Mars. When a sandstorm hits, threatening to topple their ascent vehicle, the team prepares to leave. But an aerial flies through the air spearing Mark Watney. Lying prone, with his space suit visibly breached, his bio-sign monitors transmitted to the ascent vehicle all reading zero, the crew presume him dead. With themselves having seconds left before the wind increases further to topple their ship, they take off.

Call it a fluke, call it a miracle, Mark's own blood, freeze-drying where it leaked out of his suit, provided a seal. He was alive. But he was alone on Mars. All he has is the gear brought with him for a two-month mission of the Martian surface, and the next window for a rescue mission was a year away. But even that was academic; nobody knew Mark was alive. The Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) carried the high power coms that linked the mission to Earth. Nobody thought that there would be anyone on Mars without a MAV to take them home...

The Martian is a ripping, high-octane (er... hydrazine) adventure; a Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) for the early 21st century that hits the ground running and bowls along relentlessly until its death-defying, finger-tip gripping end. It literally is a proverbial contemporary classic of 'mundane science fiction'.

The Martian speaks to generation geek in marketing parlance. But sales folk tend to be school leavers and publishers arts grads. You could say that The Martian speaks to scientists into SF ('Big Bang Theorists' if you want a simple image) but to us this means that this novel is for the science literate: this is a well-researched novel that does not shy from science, albeit at school level (which makes for the majority of the younger generation of our technology-based society, and knowledge-based economy, these days), and this in turn imbues the novel with a level of realism that further than we get with most novels.

Mark Watney is an odd creature, a botanist turned engineer. Luckily for him, he was the mission's fix-it person and so he has at least that going for him. And if you thought info-dumps were boring (surely not if you think of book's like the Hugo-nominated Neptune's Brood, to cite but one example of a potential legion), then think again. Watney's log entries are littered with them he wants to leave something to posterity and they really add to the story enabling the reader to join in with each problem puzzle the astronaut's predicament hurls at him: can you, the reader, work out a potential, albeit alternate, solution before Mark does?

OK. So the novel's science is good, indeed very good, and this is a delight. But it is not perfect: there are just a few errors. The first is that the Martian atmosphere is too thin to likely produce a storm strong enough to topple a lander. Having said that, small twisters kicking up surface dust have been observed. Light for photosynthesis inside the habitat might be problematic but then they (NASA) would have thought of that designing the habitat as one of Watney's experiments was to inoculate Martian soil with Earth soil to see if plants such as ferns (all non-food) could be grown. Finally, for those with school-level chemistry there is in one place a mass to molar volumes conversion error, it is a school-level mistake albeit it an easy one to make, but you really have to be pedantic to worry about as it does not affect the story one jot. Indeed, as this chemistry 'mistake' was made by biologist Watney in his diary it is actually in-character and as the 'mistake' has no consequences for the story it is in fact a 'mistake' that is not a 'mistake'... If you follow my drift.

But there was another science error of characterisation. For myself (a biologist), I shouted at the book when botanist Mark Watney panicked when he though he had lost his potato crop: he would have known better, kept his cool and hastened a salvage. Given that the novel is jam-packed with science and technology, the author has got so much right, done a heck of a lot of research, that one can very easily forgive him for these minor slips and grant him poetic licence for the atmosphere one that is necessary for the story's set-up.  (STOP PRESS: Potatoes can be grown under Martian conditions -- see the item within the 2017 Gaia column.)

I cannot recommend The Martian strongly enough and I was pleased that a few others of the Concat' team included this title in their 'Best of Year' recommendations that serves as the basis for SF2 Concatenation's own 'Best SF Novels of 2014' listing. All of which makes me wonder why the author had to resort to self-publishing following an episodic blog release of the story that itself garnered a respectable following? How come a specialist SF imprint did not leap on this? It was only when the self-published edition got a slew of great reviews on things like 'GoodReads' did they seem to take an interest in commercial publication: hence the odd 2013/4 publication date (and we only go the mass market paperback edition this year (2015) in Britain). The comparatively new British SF imprint Del Rey must be delighted that they picked this one up, and all the more so as, apparently, this novel is to be turned into a film to be directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon; if they stick firmly to the book then start thinking Oscars.  (STOP PRESS: the film The Martian was one of the top ten box office grossing films of the Easter-to-Easter 2015/6. The film also won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.  See also the bottom-of-page links below for the film's trailer etc.)

The book itself does not tell us much about the author in a short, four-line paragraph, other than he has always been into space travel but could not do it for real and so wrote this novel. Thankfully, he says he hopes that this will be the first of many trips into space. I do so echo that aspiration.

Jonathan Cowie

Update -- Comment on the film The Martian in the context of the novel (Spoiler Alert) (16.1.15):  The film of the book The Martian came out in September (general release October) 2015 and it went straight to the top of the N. American box office its first week of release. The film apparently cost US$109,000,000 (estimated), but by 9th October had in the USA already grossed US$108,715,595. There is no doubt that worldwide it will cover its full costs long before the three months to the year's end.

The book is such a masterful work of SF that it would be hard for a competent director to mess up the cinematic adaptation, and the one thing that director Ridley Scott is at the very least he is certainly a competent director with works such as Alien (1979), Bladerunner (1982) and Legend (1985) already under his belt. The film scores because it is a reasonably faithful adaptation of Weir's novel: almost every line from the script can be traced back to the novel. However, the film is not the book: there are differences.

First up, the book's opening is non-linear and it begins with Mark (played by Mat Damon) already realising that he is stranded on Mars!  It is agreed authors' wisdom that the first line of any book needs to capture the reader's attention and the first paragraph to reel the reader in and this flash forward (or is it we get a flash back later?) does just the trick. Andy Weir gives us the novel's first seven pages at the end of which we get a paraphrase version of the back cover blurb on with a more direct adjectival expletive: the publishers probably did not want to shock bookshop browsers with such strong swearing. The thing is these seven pages simply defy the reader to put the book down, they are that powerful. Conversely, with the film, it begins many hours earlier in story time with the mission crew taking samples and then in the hab being notified that a storm is on its way.

The one science difference from the beginning of the book is that in the book there is a reference to being exposed to the Mars environment will cause Watney to 'just kind of explode' whereas in the film it is incorrectly mentioned that he would 'implode'.

The biggest category of difference between the book and the film is that the roughly two hours and twenty four minutes film cannot contain all that there is in the book and so a fair bit of the book is left out in this shoe-horning while other elements are mentioned in passing, very briefly: blink and you could miss them. Perhaps the greatest plot element missing is some of the character dynamic of the NASA team on Earth as well as the Aries crew: for example, a fair bit is gone of NASA PR person, Annie Montrose, who in the book comes across as far stronger a character than in the film. Nonetheless NASA will be more than very pleased with the real-life PR the book and the film has garnered for the agency. Leaving aside the pro-space travel plot, NASA's logo is everywhere (talk about product placement overkill) and the value of others (such as the Chinese and ESA) is not properly recognised. (In the novel the Chinese trade sacrificing a mission to do a supply run for NASA in return for NASA including a Chinese astronaut on a future Mars mission; this is missing from the film, though someone of possible Chinese ethnicity is very briefly seen included in the next Mars mission in the film's final scenes.)

It is conveyed in the film (as in the novel) that Watney is not entirely fond of Commander Lewis's collection of 20th Century TV The Dukes of Hazard and her disco music with which Watney develops a love-hate relationship: it was the only music he had. However this does enable Ridley Scott to endow the film with Weir's neat rock-pop soundtrack. For myself the soundtrack to hard SF space opera has largely been associated with the Blue Danube waltz (I'm sure there's no need to explain myself) but now you can add: Pratt & McClain's Happy Days; Vicki Sue Robinson and Turn The Beat Around; Donna Summer and Hot Stuff; Thelma Houston and Don't Leave Me This Way; David Bowie's Starman; Abba's Waterloo; and Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive. The David Bowie's Starman and Abba's Waterloo segments are visually powerful and work well with the soundtrack.

Scott has managed to convey much of the wit of Weir's novel -- being the first Martian colonist and rubbing Neil Armstrong's nose it, and being the World's first space pirate are all in -- but Ridley did put in one new joke (and apparently almost took it out again) taking advantage of a chance contemporary possibility: the book and film set a few decades in the future makes reference to late 20th century and early 21st century culture. In the book a risky -- hence the need for confidentiality -- rescue option is considered and those considering it refer to it as 'Project Elrond' (p200 of the Del Rey first edition, 2014) after the Council of Elrond from The Lord of the Rings: this Council is the one that secretly met to decide to destroy the One Ring. This Elrond reference from the book is included in the film as, in the film, NASA's mission flight director, Mitch Henderson, is played by Sean Bean who previously, in the film The Lord of the Rings (2001), played Boromir, a valiant warrior member of the Council of Elrond. Apparently, all this was a fortuitous coincidence and Ridley Scott wanted to take the happenstance joke out but -- so it is reported -- a 20th Century Fox executive was insistent it stay in. (Good call.)

Yes, there is much of the novel's finer detail -- as opposed to major features -- left out of the film. For one thing, in the film Watney made life-viable soil from mixing Martian soil with some of his own excrement. In the book not only did he do this (presumably to get the nitrogen and potassium levels up) but also inoculated it with Earth soil and its bacteria brought for the purpose of seeing if plants (all non-food such as ferns) could be grown. (Weir/NASA missed a trick here as -- being a lifescience bod -- I'd have gone for a herb garden: easy and quick to grow with the benefit of their being able to freshen up their long-stored, pre-packed rations.) One visually significant thing Scott kept out of the film was the lighter, at just over a third of Earth's, Martian gravity. No doubt there would have been cost and production issues. Fortunately the lighter gravity is not a major feature in the book (though it does feature briefly for example in the Martian escape velocity and rendez-vous calculations). It is not missed.

The film also leaves out some of Watney's failures and the darker aspects to considering space travel. The big failure omited from the film is arguably when Watney puts the now-superpowered drill down and shorts out his newly re-established communication system with Earth. Though his rescue plan (still fraught with obstacles and time-limited) is already devised, he cannot get fresh intel from Earth and this is a big disadvantage. For example, when traversing Mars and a storm is brewing, NASA cannot tell him (from orbiter observation) the storm's size and direction which Watney needs to know so as to determine the best sunlit route for (his solar powered) rover to take.

With regards to plot tone, both the book and the film have a feel-good tone in that we all know, in our heart of hearts, that Watney is going to survive: a Hollywood film where the hero dies? Come on!  Nonetheless the book does have its on-the-edge-of-your-seat moments and there is a greater sense of danger. Perhaps the darkest omission is when in the novel Aries III crew member, Beth Johanssen, justifies to her parents the lengthy rescue extension to the mission saying that she will come back, that if they miss the re-supply as she could survive the lengthy time for her rescue because being the smallest she would remain alive after the rest of the crew committed suicide and if necessary would eat them. Apparently, it is reported according to the author, this part of the film would have been during a montage in the film with Bowie's Starman playing in the background and so they could not have much dialogue or conversation going on. The bottom line is that the novel has more gallows humour.

Oh, and don't miss the briefest nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with Watney suited up remembering to pick up his space helmet on the way out. Yes, how could he forget? He couldn't: which makes Watney's, oh so brief, momentary lapse a clear nod to the Clarke/Kubrick's film and Hal taking advantage of Dave leaving his helmet behind!

Matt Damon makes a fair fist of playing Watney, especially given he had some concerns having recently played a stranded astronaut in Interstellar (2014). However that movie (and I use the term 'movie' with care) was almost pure eye-candy, over-long, overblown, and had a subtext of dubious morality (don't worry about the environmental concerns of today as we can leave it to future generations and their technology to sort it all out). However, Watney is a very different astronaut and character. Besides which, the film's moral -- summed up by the catch phrase 'I'm going to have to science the shít out of this' -- is also very different and one of dogged competency and knowledge triumphing over adversity.

The Martian novel ends with Mark Watney being taken aboard the Aries III during its Mars fly-by. Conversely, the film concludes with a short epilogue, showing what happened to the crew after the mission ended. We see: Watney training astronauts (and Hollywood-ramming home the film's moral as if the audience has not the gumption to suss it out for themselves); Beck and Johanssen starting a family; and Rick Martinez leaving on another space mission.

The film left out a lot, but equally we know from pre-film launch publicity that other material was shot, plus there's whatever there is following editing on the cutting room floor. I'm hoping for a director's cut! (After all, Ridley Scott has previous form (cf. Bladerunner).)

Links to short video clips:-
          Bring him home!
          Pre-film-launch publicity clip
          'Our Greatest Adventure' mini fictional promo-documentary for the mission
          Trailer for the film The Martian


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[Posted: 15.9.15 | Film update: 16.1.15 | Contact | Copyright | Privacy]