The Martian tells the story of NASA astronaut Mark Watney, mistakenly left behind for dead when his crewmates evacuate the planet during a mission-aborting storm. We begin with Watney’s point of view: “I’m pretty much fucked.” While Weir also gives us chapters from the viewpoint of NASA on Earth and the crew who left him behind, I suspect Watney is Weir’s favorite character.
Story of the story
The story of how the book went from pen (or keyboard) to movie screen is Andy Weir’s real-life fairy tale.
- He began writing the book in 2009, researching thoroughly so it would be as realistic as possible. Weir decided to blog the book online one chapter at a time for free. In 2011 fans of the website convinced him to self-publish the book on Amazon – originally as a Kindle book at the lowest price Amazon allowed: 99¢.
- It soared to the top of Amazon’s list of best-selling science-fiction titles.
- Podium Publishing signed for the audiobook rights in 2013.
- Crown Publishing purchased the print rights and re-released it in 2014.
- The book debuted on the New York Times Best Seller list on March 2, 2014.
- Now it’s a major motion picture.
I can imagine why traditional literary agents rejected Weir’s books if they’re all like this (The Martian wasn’t his first try.) Weir’s mission to Mars feels deeply “NASA” with chipper, brilliant, and brave astronauts. As the book promos say, The Martian is a tale of survival of the geekiest. You could have an Excel spreadsheet open as you read, to check Weir’s math. All this sounds too tech-heavy for any traditional publisher to try.
The Martian defies “tradition”
The possibly-doomed astronaut tells most of his story through log entries – “telling” rather than “showing” (a bugaboo in writing advice.) For every clever survival ploy and disastrous setback, you know he survived because he’s logging the sol’s adventures after the fact. There’s all the detail from Weir’s research – technical “backstory” the astronaut shares in his log – more anti-writing advice. There’s no villain, though Mars is quite an antagonist. Most importantly, there’s a lack of soap opera – Weir offers no dark secrets or betrayed loves – very little about the astronaut, his friends, or family at all.
I’m an engineer and appreciate the sense of reality Weir creates in his story, and the brave plucky astronaut, but even I started skimming the math late in the book. That was because I wanted to find out what happened next – not because I wanted the book to end. Read the free preview and if your reaction is “I want three hundred pages of this,” read the book. You’ll be happy.
Real Settlers Can Learn From The Martian
Mars-One, real-life non-profit dedicated to placing a colony on Mars, takes lessons from the book:
“If you want to be the first, you have to like being alone. Stated in a more practical way, when you’re a settler in the first settlement on Mars, you have no neighbors when you need to borrow some folding chairs for your next party.”
But Mars-One wants to plant a permanent colony while The Martian mission does not. As they say, “The novel described some useful future-tech inventions, like nano-woven habitat cloth, nuclear spaceships, and durable life support equipment. But… where are all the robots? And 3D printers? And other tech for basic infrastructure?”
What others say
Amazon Kindle edition is up to $5.99 now, with over 13,000 reviews averaging 4.5 stars. Phenomenal. For a little balance, I looked at the few 3-star ratings. These readers disliked exactly what everyone else loved: “This is a nerd’s book. It is driven almost entirely by the mastery of technical details.” [M. Milligan] The optimistic, wisecracking castaway sounded juvenile to some. It did remind me of the type of dialog from science fiction’s pulpier era, with the modern acceptance of an occasional “fuck.” Can you imagine Neil Armstrong texting to JPL “Look! A pair of boobs! -> (.Y.)? I’m curious to hear how the movie presents Watney’s monologs and dialogs.
The story behind The Martian is at Wikipedia. SPOILER ALERT – Wikipedia includes a plot summary.