This review is going to be controversial. There is a lot of hype about this book with the movie and Matt Damon and the Hollywood machine in overdrive.
I didn’t like it.
Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t hate it. I just didn’t like it. It wasn’t well written. Clever, credible and smart, yes; well written, not so much!
So the basic premise is as follows: there is a NASA programme of manned Mars landings; on one mission, a storm forces the crew to abort the mission but a terrible accident appears to kill Mark Watney, a member of the team, so they leave without him.
But he’s not dead.
He survives alone on Mars, believing himself abandoned.
The set-up detailed and well thought through: whoever Andy Weir is, he’s had a thorough meditation on how a Mars expedition might work: supplies, habitation, rovers, life support, ascent and descent vehicles. How to regulate atmosphere, create oxygen, hydrogen and water. Credible sounding acronyms. Very techy and reasonable.
He also has thought through Watney’s situation incredibly thoroughly. His procedures for Watney’s creation of viable soil, additional water and hydrogen, modifications to his rover and communications all seem credible and reasonable. I mean, I’m no expert and it may be riddled with plotholes – IMDb will probably identify them soon enough – but it has an air of credibility at a technical level. I mean, check the number of times when characters “run the numbers”. How could the novel not feel credible when there are numbers to run?!
What it doesn’t have any credibility on – for me – is in characters. Watney at no point shows any sense of mental deterioration in the time alone on the planet facing almost certain death. His frequent fist-bump interjections “Yay! Go me!” were neither credible nor charming. It is inconceivable that he suffered no deterioration, however upbeat and positive his core personality.
Nor are the other characters credible at all: having Mindy – who first realises that Watney is still alive – say “Um…” at the start of every sentence is not the same as creating a character. Nor is mentioning that another character squares his papers on his desk. Weir does not do people well!
There is a phenomenon – mainly in fanfiction – of the Mary or Marty Sue character: an idealised wish-fulfilment character which is often an author inserting himself into the novel. I feel there is an element there in the character of Rich Purnell, the geeky pseudo-autistic tech who creates the manoeuvre which allows the Hermes spaceship to return to Mars to try to rescue Watney. I think Rich Purnell is Andy Weir!
As a writer, I also didn’t find the shifts from Watney’s first person log reports (which felt more like a teenager’s diary than a log report!) to third person narrative on Earth (and the dialogue! Oh my god the dialogue!) and especially the flashback episode.
So… did I hate the book? No! It was clever and smart and held my interest.
But it was not a great book. And certainly does not deserve the huge praise and hype it’s received.