I've been meaning to write about Andy Weir's excellent novel The Martian for some while now and I've finally been galvanised into it by the arrival of the movie on multiplex screens everywhere. (I shall write about the film in due course.)
I have my friend Lucy the Planetary Scientist to thank for turning me on to this great book. What really piqued my interest was when she described it as both immensely suspenseful and very funny. The suspense I could have predicted, but not the humour...
And The Martian scores hugely in both ways. It is utterly nail-biting and gripping as it details one man's attempt to remain alive when he is (inadvertently) marooned on Mars.
And it is also hilarious, almost from the first page. Andy Weir writes brilliantly, casting his story in the form of a first person narrative — the device is that our hero, Mark Watney, is keeping a journal.
So we get asides like “caution’s best when setting fire to rocket fuel in an enclosed space”; “If the RTG [Radioisotope Thermonuclear Generator] ever broke open, it would kill me to death”; “I've gutted that poor Rover so much, it looks like I parked it in a bad part of town.”
There is a considerable jolt when we cut back to Earth to begin the other strand of the story... NASA gradually awaking to Watney's plight and mounting a rescue mission.
Here we leave behind the first person prose for third person. It's less funny and confident and lacks the perfection of the journal sequences. And we get sentences like “Teddy glared across his immaculate mahogany desk…”
But we're soon back on Mars with Mark, hearing everything in his voice. "Fun fact: This is exactly how the Apollo 1 crew died. Wish me luck!"
The sardonic humour is an immense asset for this book, and sets it quite apart from anything else I've read. The Martian is, quite simply, the best and most enjoyable book I have encountered in many years. Thank you, Lucy!
And this novel isn't just funny (though I literally howled with laughter at one point). It is also a masterpiece of suspense. Every time Mark seems to be getting on top of his lethal situation, a new and terrible (and all too plausible) catastrophe befalls him. Christ, just when you think you're in the clear, the tension begins to build again...
But the appeal of the book is perhaps best summed up by Mark Watney (and Andy Weir): “In space no one can hear you scream like a little girl.”
Most emphatically recommended.
(Image credits: the book covers are from Good Reads. I particularly like the Chinese one.)