Paperback: ISBN13: 978-0091956141
Broadway Books; Reprint edition (October 28, 2014)
Hardback: ISBN13: 978-0804139021
Crown; First Edition (February 11, 2014)
Ebook: ISBN-10: 0091956145
Ebury Digital (February 13, 2014)
Very concise summary: Mark Watney is Robinson Crusoe on Mars without pal Friday to keep him company. He has to figure out how to survive until the next Mars mission arrives.
There have been a few books recently such as Robopocalypse and Ready Player One, that read like they have been written to be made into movies This book is one of those. I swayed between three and four stars on this one and finally kicked it up to four. Why?
Narrative voice. Although much of the novel is written in ‘diary style’ and colloquialisms such as ‘yay’ and ‘lol’ are meant to emphasize that, they were just sometimes annoying. I know the explanatory line from Mark Watney’s (the main protagonist in the story) psychologist (interviewed at some time in the book) told us that he cracks a lot of jokes, and that seems to be a central part of his personality, but I didn’t really warm up to his ‘voice’. There were a few parts that were truly funny, and those parts worked best because those were instances where the author wasn’t trying overly hard to convince us that Watney was a funny guy.
Point-of-view. POVs in the book alternated between the first person log entries (Watney), a sort of omniscient narrator looking down on Watney, third person limited POVs from some of the earthbound people and the Hermes crew. I found the omniscient viewpoint distracting and some of the third person as well because of head-hopping.
Stereotypes and stupid decisions. The scientists on earth seemed designed just for the plot and (with the exception of the quirky public relations director) did not seem to have any real reason to exist on their own as characters. Least favorite line in the novel: ‘”Sheesh,” he said nervously. “We’re scientists, for Christ’s sake. What the hell!?”’ <spoiler> This was made in response to the crew commander for the Hermes getting emotionally involved about the decision NOT to let the Hermes crew rescue Watney. </spoiler> How stupid is that? Not the decision itself, which did add to the tension and seemed manufactured just for that reason, but the crack about scientists. This is one of those stock stereotypical scientist gags. ‘Gosh, Bob, yes, we’re scientists. Let’s act like it.’
Watney. He always seems to know what to do right away. Sometimes he figures it out after a good night’s sleep. I find it hard to believe that he could sleep at all with some kind of death-inducing event threatening on the horizon. But that’s just me. He had a sort of shallowness/immaturity about him that reminded me of the main character in Ready Player One who could be excused for his behavior because, well, he is an adolescent through most of the book. Watney should be beyond that. But this is also a good thing (see below) because we are spared a lot of whininess.
Predictability. <spoiler> With the whole planet watching, we know there is going to be a good ending. I also guessed the Hermes maneuver early on. </spoiler>
America the Great. The whole world is ‘watching’ Watney, anxious about him getting back. The U.S. is spending gajillions of dollars to rescue him. What I would have liked was some plausibility based on realpolitik behind the decision. Such as: being able to rescue people stranded on Mars (or somewhere else in space) is a good thing. Here’s our chance to learn how to do it. Not: because we’re America and that’s what we do, rescue our own. (Disclaimer: I’m also American, but unabashed patriotism sometimes makes me cringe, so take this for what it’s worth.)
Pacing. Excellent. I read the book in two days. I had already read the sample beforehand – which almost made me not buy the book – but I’m glad I got through that part. To those who had the same experience: it gets better after that. Much better.
Suspense. Very good if a bit overdone. Everything Watney does brings up a new crisis. It was believable, if in a strained way, but it certainly made for good reading.
Lack of Emotion. Watney doesn’t wallow in any sort of depression about his situation or any of the crises he is faced with for very long. Although this could also be construed as a criticism (and is part of the reason I claim that this is a book-written-to-be-made-into-a-movie), I found this a good thing if not very believable. But since the main character is an engineer, I could be wrong about that. It makes for good reading because there isn’t a whole lot of introspection. Instead, there is a lot of discussion about 70s television and disco music. Okaaaaay. Totally missed opportunity: cultural references to the television series My Favorite Martian – even though it was in the late sixties.
The Writing. Doesn’t get in the way of the story. Very good. Despite that, there is a lot of visual imagery so we know what the setting is, the weather, etc. and can get a good picture of what all the vehicles look like (sort of).
The Physics. I didn’t even skim, found it fascinating and interesting and didn’t even go through and check everything. I believed the author had and that was enough.
Fazit: A quick and engrossing read. Will make a good movie because it seems to be written to be turned into one. I mean that in a good way.