Andy Weir, author of The Martian, hardly needs signal-boosting. His breakthrough novel was not an immediate hit in 2011, but a self-published novel that sells 35,000 copies when it arrives on Kindle, then is picked up by a major publisher, and then is made into one of 2015’s biggest science fiction films is undoubtedly a huge success story.
The novel also offers up a good story. For such a popular novel there’s a surprising amount of engineering, science and mathematics present, albeit most of it asking little of the reader save to accept that astronaut/botanist/engineer Mark Watney has solved a problem. It’s interesting that this might also be one of the most commercially successful novels with hard SF characteristics in many years. Not being an avid tracker of genre book sales I’ve no idea if I’m correct in thinking that, but if it is true then the reason why is likely the book’s other main strength: its protagonist’s good humour and wit. He’s a sort of lovable goofball type, except competent and intelligent rather than indolent and fundamentally dickish.
The book also works well because, for the most part, its structure is a chain of loops: Watney identifies a problem that threatens his survival, he works out how to solve the problem, he attempts the solution, he corrects for what went wrong, he enjoys brief triumph before the next problem rears its head. As the lone astronaut on all of Mars, with limited resources and tools available to him, there are spadefuls of rugged individualism and pioneer spirit heaped into this, though happily he seeks to escape rather than dominate. One man and his brain against the world. It’s an effective source of conflict and its grounding in convincing technical language plausibly makes the SFnal elements more accessible.
This is all tempered by Watney’s personality. Because the bulk of the novel is presented as his own diary entries, and for the first third he doesn’t really believe he will survive, it often feels like he’s writing for himself. He’s sometimes genuinely funny and has a keen eye for the absurdity inherent in, say, planning three years of survival rations based on potatoes grown in his own shit.
I read Weir’s Artemis – a 2017 novel – a few years ago and it shares some characteristics. Wise-cracking, smart-alec first-person point of view, an environment hostile to human life, lots of near-future tech that’s as ‘real’ as possible, and a plot with plenty of twists and challenges requiring engineering solutions. I was less enthused by its vision of a moon colony: essentially a microcosm of dog-eat-dog capitalism, with the protagonist a sort of roving gig economy worker handling odd jobs to supplement her main income via smuggling. It was fun, but all the same I found the uncritical reproduction of Earthbound Western economies and class divisions, and its tech messianic macguffin, tiresome.
The Martian works better because it’s outside all of that. One man, one planet, one goal: survive. Although the book does not devote much time to philosophical themes, at the end of the book Watney muses on humanity’s innate drive to help one another. It’s noble and resonates with the book’s themes. At the end of Artemis, protagonist Jazz works out how to engage in insider training to make bank from the story’s events. It resonates with the book’s themes, and we celebrate our protagonist’s achievement of her goal – independence – but the goal is selfish and the method ignoble. How much better to escape the Red Planet and be united with friends, with all humanity cheering you on.