There are two things that make The Martian, by Andy Weir, such a popular novel: Weir's sense of humor and his attention to technical details. Weir fires off many quotable one-liners that are laugh out loud funny, and in between he provides grueling technical detail into his main character's ingenious methods of survival. This is a novel with a simple premise - a man's quest to survive alone on Mars - and is told with realistic detail. And yet, Weir's storytelling chops are lacking. Yes he has a great sense of humor that helps break up the novel's many boring passages, but his love for the technical details of the Mars mission harm his overall story. When you break it down, there is very little plot, little to no character development, and hardly any philosophical speculation on the situation Weir's main character finds himself in.
Weir jumps straight into the heart of his novel. The crew of Ares 3, a Mars mission, believes one of its members, Mark Watney, is dead. We know this because Watney writes it in his journal. A dust storm jeopardizes the mission and heavy winds cause an antenna wire to impale Watney while the team was getting ready to abort the mission. The team loses contact with him and desperately searches for him, but with time running out, they have no choice but to leave him. Watney finds himself alone with no way to contact Earth on a landscape that is uninhabitable. He must use his ingenuity as a botanist and engineer to figure out how to survive.
The novel is all about calculations. Watney knows that NASA has planned a series of Mars trips about every four years, so his first calculations are how to survive until Ares 4. He has lots of rations, especially since his six-man crew has been reduced to one, but not enough to last until Ares 4. As a botanist, however, he figures out how to grow potatoes (yes, on Mars). But to grow enough to ensure his survival requires turning his entire living space into a garden, along with the spaces of the two vehicles left behind. Watney explains in his journal entries all of his methods and calculations in explicit detail.
This becomes a formula for the story. Watney runs into a problem, some of them having no immediate impact, and others having enormous immediate impact. Watney then explains exactly how he goes about solving said problem - what methods he uses, what materials he uses, what quantities he uses, how he tests his methods, how he modifies his methods based on how his tests go, and how those methods work out. I know there are plenty of people who will enjoy all of the trouble Weir goes through to explain all of these details because, from what I understand, they are very accurate and probable. And yet, they do not make for good storytelling. The story stalls during these moments. We know, as the reader, that since the book is written as journal entries, Watney will be fine because he survived to write that entry. This takes the suspense out of the story. It felt like he was writing a how-to book rather than a thrilling novel.
Watney isn't the only character in the story, but he is the only compelling one. Weir does a good job of creating a unique individual in Watney, and it's Watney's sense of humor that sets him apart. Weir has a keen ear for the sorts of humorous memes that get passed around social media, and that's largely the sort of the humor Watney has. I laughed out loud during a lot of moments of the book. In fact, I think it would be safe to classify this as a work of comedy more than a thriller. And it's this humor, I think, that is the biggest draw to the book. Reading the Kindle version, you can find all of the novel's funniest passages by searching for the most highlighted sections.
Watney is not the only character in the novel, and, in fact, there are quite a lot of characters who show up. There is the head of the NASA operations on Mars, Venkat Kapoor, along with other NASA characters such as Mitch and Teddy and Mindy and Annie, and then there are the crew members of the Ares 3 mission: Lewis, Johannsen, Beck, Vogel, and Martinez. The problem is, all of these characters are one-dimensional. To be honest, of the Ares 3 crew, I had trouble remembering who was a man or who was a woman, and when an apparent romance is revealed, I hardly cared, and when each crew member has a chat with a loved one on Earth, it was just a waste of pages. These characters are integral to the story, yes, but are treated almost as extensions of Watney's character, wisecracks all of them.
One of the joys of reading science fiction is its speculative nature. The Martian will have you speculate, yes, on survival on Mars, but not with any philosophical depth. Its speculation is limited just to Watney's own ingenuity. The greats in the science fiction realm love to tackle the big issues and get you thinking about big ideas. Watney loves to crack jokes, but doesn't take any time to contemplate his situation, even though he does have plenty of time. All he does is watch and rewatch seventies TV shows left behind on a crewmate's USB drive. One of the values of reading good science fiction is what it makes you think about, and with The Martian, it's not a whole lot. If you want a simple tale that will make you laugh a lot, this is an entertaining read, and if you love to talk shop with your friends, you'll fall in love with Mark Watney's method of narration. Just don't expect a great book.