As a thought experiment in mechanical engineering, orbital mechanics and survival tactics, "The Martian" is captivating. As a novel, it comes up short.
None of the secondary characters - from the Ares 3
crew members to the support staff on the ground at NASA - had any depth or surprises. They filled the exact formulaic roles necessary to push the story forward. The tough by fair female commander. The beautiful and brilliant nerdy girl (not woman - girl) who falls in love with an older man. The hesitant leader and the subordinate who defies him by putting others' lives at risk.
Perhaps, in an attempt to show how extensive the task of bringing Watney home was, there were simply too many of these characters to give any of them due treatment. As a result they were all familiar, and therefore boring. Not to mention, their interactions were often painful to read, with dialogue so flat and unnatural it was more alien than anything Watney experienced on Mars. The line "but I'm the administrator of NASA" actually makes an appearance in the very first section of dialogue in the entire book. I rolled my eyes so hard they're still spinning.
The lack of substance in the secondary characters and their dialogue is made all the more apparent in its stark contrast to Watney. He is, at the very least, interesting. His understanding of and ability to manipulate his surroundings to fit his needs are fascinating, and obviously thoroughly researched by Weir. The attention to detail is simply stunning.
But while this adds a foundation of believability to the science the book explores, again the writing itself suffers. As I read I kept asking myself, "Can I really accept that this is a log Watney is keeping?" It doesn't read like a journal. Some sections are labeled as transcriptions of audio recordings - there's just no way anyone would structure a verbal description of the events of their day the way Watney does. It's too carefully planned. Too much foreshadowing, too many hints at dramatic irony. I can accept that Watney is an unconventional scientist, and that his humor and personality would overshadow the tedious record-keeping that others in his position might create. And at least these sections are far more entertaining than anything happening back on Earth or on Hermes
, but I found myself being far more engrossed by what was happening than by who it was happening to.
It's a shame, really, that Watney never experienced despair. Unnatural, too. We never had a moment in the book where he lost all hope. Even when things went horribly wrong - like when he was trapped in the broken airlock - his determination to be optimistic won out. This made it increasingly difficult to relate to Watney as the book went on. Abandoning your main character, entirely alone on another world, should open the story up to a deep character study. Instead, everything that Watney went through happened to
him, not within
him. All of his lowest moments were determined by circumstance, and external forces, such as broken equipment or a lack of food. We never get to see him descend emotionally, so we lose the opportunity to cheer for him when he chooses to rise again.
In the end, then, what we cheer for is not Watney, but for the accomplishment of rescuing him itself. The triumph is for an impossible task which was done, not for the person whom it was done for.