Self publishing a novel is always a tricky thing. Normally looking at a novel for review I usually select a pre publish gallows copy so there are no pre-ordained expectations. “The Martian” [Andy Weir/Broadway/385pgs] is an interesting example in this regard. I heard about it in a slingshot fashion. The movie has already been shot but I barely looked at the trailers. I had a perception of Matt Damon playing stranded astronaut Watney and Jessica Chastain playing Commander Lewis but beyond that and the fact that Ridley Scott was directing, it was pretty unsaturated in my mind. The thing is what kind of book would pull people in like this. Plus add the fact that both of the lead actors had just been in “Interstellar”, a fairly complex outing, and yet they jumped back into another parallel space arena. The two stories couldn’t be more different but, in a way, they are the same as well. The main character is searching for his identity integrating into an unknown arena. The difference becomes one between the two pictures of philosophy versus practicality. Each one denotes the idea of survival. But the way this book is built will be interesting to see in translation. A similar study would be to look at the film “127 Hours” which tells of a man surviving on a hiking trip. It was modestly budgeted and used some reflective video elements to buffer the time. The interesting device here is that for the first quarter of the book and much of it throughout, the story is told in diary journal entry. For a good part of the novel, Watney is with nobody and his communication with NASA is limited to none. Most of the time, voice over can be attributed to lazy filmmaking but here it is key to the narrative. The trick will be pacing and balance. “127 Hours” was a different exercise. “The Martian” is likely a 150 million dollar movie with a good amount of special effects (though not as much as some), a couple movie stars and the director of “Blade Runner”. Tricky. (As Watney would say) You bet.
But I digress. And that is the great thing Watley does in this novel. He makes fun of himself. His quips in his journals, to himself, to NASA and his crewmates. These quips are great and full of witty and non politically correct humor at times. This is what makes this novel the crossover sensation that it has become. Humor. That is what this novel has that many science fiction novels don’t get. Humor. At many points, I found myself laughing myself because some of his thoughts are just so dead on…and yet they are placed in while describing a distinct technical process. It makes for a quick read and releases the pressure valve. Watmey jokes about disco and countless other elements. These points are great because they are character related and ground the character so that even if he is on a planet by himself, you can identify with him. There doesn’t need to be some large scale action sequence. This is a much simpler story than say “Red Planet” and “Mission To Mars” and infinitely and likely more effective. It is more similar in tone at times with the novel of “Contact” which oddly enough, with its original story, mirrored “Interstellar” in a way. And like that movie (“Contact”) which I read in similar sequence to this novel, the resulting movie, no matter how good or bad it is, will effect the engaging experience the book was. From simple beginnings as Weir started with this book, comes an epic story which works in its ability to explain the most complex of current equations: traveling and surviving an another planet within our reach, in a grounded, intriguing, funny and practical way.