The Martian is like a twelve hour math class. It’s the most fun twelve hour math class you will ever have the chance to take, and its well worth the time. I know that’s not much of a pitch, but let me explain. Mark Whatney# is the lead character of this book (for much of it, he is the only character). He’s a mechanical engineer and botanist who gets stranded on Mars. He is the only living person on the planet and has to figure out, daily, how he is going to survive in an environment that is constantly trying to kill him. That means math, lots and lots of math, but this is James Bond math. It is math that, depending on whether you get it right or not, can either save you or kill you. Those are pretty high stakes. Imagine what a rush it would be if you were sitting in a classroom, knowing that if you forgot to move the decimal, your face would implode. Many of you probably had a teacher capable of such terror, so maybe that’s not the best illustration. Even if you don’t like math (which I’m not particularly fond of), Whatney’s wry sense of humor and “if there’s a way to get off this friggin’ planet, I am going to find it” attitude make the entire book feel light and unencumbered by the restrictive narrative environment that Andy Weir has to work in.
The actual narrative structure of the book is unusual. What begins as a first person account told through log entries later meets a third person narrative of the reactions of the rest of NASA to news of Whatney’s survival and their desperate attempts to rescue him. This threw me at first glance, but I quickly adjusted.
Some might criticize the book for the “unprofessional” nature of Whatney’s blog entries, and I can see how a few of them go over the top, but I would have rather had the humor than just a dry lecture on the conductive qualities of spacecraft siding. Additionally, if you were stranded on Mars all by your lonesome and you knew you were going to die without ever seeing another person again, I think you might drop the pretense and just say what you’re thinking as well.
So, is it worth the read? If you’re looking to get off planet, but not go as far as a true Sci-Fi novel, I’d say “yes”. It gives you a lot to think about; places you up there. While you’re reading it, you’ll be looking up at the night sky, imagining what it would be like to be out there, all alone, like Robinson Crusoe, but on a whole ‘nother world. That’s a thought worth contemplating for a while.