The Unexpected Depth of Life on Mars -- Book Review: "The Martian," by Andy Weir

"The Martian" is a gripping and meticulous novel that achieves a surprising poignancy despite what many might see as a cold, strictly technical writing style. This, in my estimation, is the book's true achievement--the ability to stir emotion with language that consistently lacks any.

For this reason "The Martian," I would argue, deserves to be respected as more than a "good read." After all, we often judge literature by its ability to elicit an emotional response without resorting to sentimentalism or transparent emotional manipulation. By relating exactly what Mark Watney, NASA, JPL, and the rest of the world do to attempt to get Watney safely home from Mars after he's stranded there, Andy Weir conjures an emotional connection and response from the reader seemingly from thin air--or at least from a very low-oxygen atmosphere.

Doing so requires some careful narrative decisions on Weir's part. For instance, starting the book with a large section of mission logs from Watney underscores his feeling of isolation. As a reader, you start to wonder if you're going to spend the entire book in this single, narrow perspective. When the narrative jumps back to earth, you experience--on a small scale--what Watney later feels when he first makes communication contact with NASA. It comes as a relief, and the shifting perspective continues to work this way throughout the novel.

It would be wrong to underestimate how deftly Weir handles this. The pacing of perspective shifts manages the constant tension readers feel between Watney's isolation and the potential promise of rescue. Without using any trumped-up emotional language, Weir subtly allows the reader to experience what being stranded on Mars feels like for Watney.

All of this builds to the book's stirring conclusion, an affirmation of our shared commitment to one another. A big, schmaltzy idea like this is dangerous territory for any author. It's hard to pull this off without drifting into sentimentality. Weir takes even further risk by having Watney state this conclusion directly at the close of the book. You might think he's breaking the cardinal rule of "show; don't tell," but, in fact, the telling works expertly.

Here's why: Throughout "The Martian," we have seen every detail of how people around the world have come together in a massive effort to rescue one man stranded on Mars and how an isolated Watney, through sheer MacGuyver-esque self-reliance, keeps him self alive on the desert planet. Because Weir sticks to the minutiae of the efforts, only hinting occasionally at their costs (financial and emotional), the reader never questions that this is exactly what would happen. It becomes taken as a given. We never even have to say to ourselves, "Of course people would pull together like this."

As a result, ending on Watney's statement of this fact comes almost as an "ah-ha" moment, a realization that seems true to the book and to the world at large. It is a moment of "telling" that has been carefully earned, because it has been shown again and again without question throughout the novel. This way, ending with it clearly stated becomes a powerful moment, closing the novel with a message that feels deeply rooted in the narrative and resonates unexpectedly with our understanding of the world.

I say all this because I think there's a temptation to praise "The Martian" but to simply write it off as a well-researched page-turner. In fact, I would argue, it is a great deal more. It is a work of literature that tells us something essential and true about the human condition--that the ties and tensions between isolation and interconnection run deep.

And, of course, it is a blast to read.

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