Review written by Clark Valentine.
I hear you. It’s a valid question. “Clark,” you say, “why in the world are you reviewing The Martian for a book review site focusing on 8-13 year old readers?” Yes, The Martian was absolutely written with adults in mind, no question about it. But with the film being released in October 2015 it has some strong interest, and many younger readers will find it available to them. It wouldn’t surprise me if it finds its way into some high school curricula.
The basics: It’s some unspecified year in the early or mid 21st century, and a shockingly well-funded NASA has launched crewed missions to Mars, called the Ares Program. In the third such mission, astronaut Mark Watney was left behind when he was presumed to have died during a storm on Mars’s surface. The book tells the story of his efforts to survive long enough for NASA to mount a rescue mission. It’s one part science nerd pinup material and one part MacGyver improvisational problem solving procedural.
Most of the story is epistolary (Watney’s journal entries). The story picks up with Watney’s first entry after being left behind, so there is pleasantly little preface. As things progress, the narrative also relates some action happening back on Earth and aboard the spacecraft headed back to Earth. It’s a good mixture of points of view.
I enjoyed The Martian immensely and devoured it in just a few days, but I’m a big ol’ science nerd with a long history of watching shows like Cosmos and 3-2-1 Contact and pondering the elegance of Maxwell’s equations and actually working as a scientist/engineer for aerospace and science companies. It is likely bore the ever living daylights out of people who don’t have at least a passing interest in space science.
Okay, spoiler time. Note that The Martian is highly plot-driven, and the plot spoilers here are huge. Burn now if you’d rather not; you still have the delta-vee for an Earth intercept.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
(Please read that heading in Thomas Dolby’s voice.)
The Martian is, on every page, Science Saves The Day Again. It portrays scientists and engineers as heroic problem solvers. As an engineer, I fully support this and think we need more books making engineers looking heroic and awesome.
That said, The Martian makes the assumption that the reader has a certain amount of understanding of general physics, chemistry, and space science (orbital mechanics and such). It assumes you know that Millennium Falcon is from the realm of fantasy, and doesn’t devote a ton of space to explaining why the spaceship Hermes can’t just zip on back to Mars to pick up Watney when they realize he’s alive. It assumes you know that we don’t have Star Trek style life support that can conjure food, water, and breathable air out of fairy dust and happy thoughts.
Additionally, there’s a lot of space in The Martian devoted to calculating how many calories an astronaut will need to survive for a year, and how many liters of hydrogen can be liberated from a tank of hydrazine, and how much acceleration a spaceship needs to be at a certain place at a certain time with a certain velocity. This sort of thing is science nerd heaven to some people, and dreadful tedium to others (even to some science nerds).
Resilience and Determination
NASA never gives up. The crew of Hermes never gives up. Mark Watney never gives up, and in fact remains a sarcastic, wise-cracking geek through the entire thing, cracking jokes and making comic book references even in the darkest moments. Work The Problem, an imperative also heard in Apollo 13 (clearly an inspiration for The Martian), is the guiding principle throughout. Stay focused. Don’t let discouragement cloud your ability to get the job done. This is a pretty good lesson for kids, or anyone really—if Mark Watney can find a way to synthesize water on Mars, you can get your math homework done.
Violence and Scariness
First off: Watney survives and gets home, as does everyone else. Kids sensitive to character death won’t have to deal with that, but they don’t know that as they read.
Time after time after time, Watney does things that are likely to kill him, but he doesn’t have any choice. He frequently observes that he is very likely to die, so this will probably be his last entry, etc. Some frank discussion of “What happens if Watney dies?” goes on. A brief reference to cannibalism (yes, cannibalism) comes up when discussing limited food supplies aboard ship, in the context of this being the official plan. Yuck.
There are no bad guys in the book. Some characters are annoying, people disagree with each other (sometimes strenuously), but everyone is competent and focused on saving lives.
All the astronauts know how to end their own lives, and all claim to be willing to take the drugs that would do it if all hope would be lost. Sometimes it’s in the context of self-sacrifice, saving supplies for others, and sometimes it’s described as a painless alternative to slowly starving to death in the wasteland of Mars or interplanetary space.
Profanity and Rudeness
The Martian contains plenty of foul language, up to and including frequent F-bombs. There’s lots of frank descriptions of bodily functions using terms the FCC would not approve of.
Sex and Romance
Several astronauts reflect on how long they’ve been in space and not gotten laid. Two of the astronauts don’t have that problem, and while nothing happens on the page it’s implied they spend some naked time together. Watney fantasizes about meeting a lovely Martian woman and getting to know her. Once or twice the banter among the astronauts goes into PG-13 territory. There’s a small bit of sophomoric ASCII nudity. I found it all pretty innocuous.
Mark Watney is not religious. One of the other astronauts (Martinez) is Roman Catholic, and a high ranking NASA official is Hindu. When Watney uses a crucifix left behind by Martinez as kindling for a fire, he pauses to reflect on whether a god would be OK with that (he decides in the affirmative). I’m not convinced the depiction of Venkat Kapoor’s faith gets the nuances right, but I can’t say for sure it doesn’t. In any event, it’s never a big issue.
It’s very much a first novel. All of the characters are pretty 2-dimensional—we see very little change or growth in any of the major characters, and the secondary characters are paper thin. The reason I don’t call this a castaway story is because Watney doesn’t really change through his ordeal. He comes out of it the same dorky goofball he was at the beginning, with little introspection or perspective shift coming out of it.
But that’s pretty common stuff to see in first novels, especially plot-driven stories like this one; I’m certain the author will improve his craft as his career continues.
The women characters are especially (here’s that word, but darned if I can think of a better one) problematic. There are four named women characters, and three of them are described as physically attractive; I don’t think I remember any of the men described that way. Two of them (including an astronaut!) are portrayed as demure, shy, unconfident, reticent, that sort of thing. The high ranking woman at NASA is a PR expert rather than a scientist or a policy making official. The sexism that’s here reads to me as unthinking rather than malicious, but I’d definitely talk with my daughter or son about it if they were to read the book. Incidentally, I feel fairly certain this is also something the author will improve as he continues his career.
As much as I loved The Martian, I can’t recommend it to anyone under 13. It was the discussion of the suicide-cannibalism plan that pushed me over the edge. But if your kid can handle that sort of grisly contingency planning (it never does happen, they just talk about it), they love the messy details of science, and they grok enough space science to get that real astronautics doesn’t work like Star Wars, they might really dig The Martian.
For what it’s worth, I read the 2014 Broadway Books paperback edition, with the Extra Libris material in the back—and this includes a set of discussion questions clearly intended for use in a book club or maybe even a classroom. So it’s possible the publisher thinks it’d work in a high school setting, at least.
The Martian by Andy Weir
Published in 2011 by Random House LLC
Read my own paperback copy