Review by Ruchir sodhani
Made into a famous blockbuster starring Matt Damon as the central character, the book is about Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded on Mars, presumed dead, with no means to communicate to earth and the next planned mission being years away. It is like ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars’. The story is told mostly through the log entries of Mark, chronicling his efforts to survive: making the damaged prefabricated experimental dome livable, finding a way to grow food, make water, and overcome other hazards.
The page-turning suspense is created through the stream of unfortunate circumstances, accidents or incidents which are life threatening. The narrative induces an adrenalin rush that we get from staring death in the face (time and again) and the exhilaration of step-by-step thinking aloud to work out a solution. It is a story of a ‘hero’ who is clever, practical, and persistent ‘karma yogi’ who is not going to give up, however bleak the odds may be.
This is one book I did not finish! I have not seen the movie either. Some contexts about my perspectives on reading …
- It is hard to give up on a book, especially one that is the talk-of-the-town.
- I tried to give the author the ‘benefit-of-doubt’ and felt that it was possible that if I were able to persevere, I would find parts of the book that would talk to me.
- I realised that my moods swung and swayed, so it was quite possible that my circumstances may have played a role in my ability to connect with the book.
To me the book was like a procession of events, with much technical jargon and logical thinking, but lacking insight into human aspects. Ironically, the story is full of ‘jugaad’ ingenuity, which was interesting at first, but became repetitive and boring without the narrative skill in its telling. It felt like ‘Captain Cool’ indulging in relentless problem-solving with detailed descriptions about the application of science, mathematics, and technology. Rather than a novel, it felt like a case study for an astronaut’s survival guide. As another reviewer put it, the regular theme was “Bummer, this is going to change my plans. Oh well, I’ll just have to come up with another brilliant idea.”
To me a big lost chance was in the mechanical drama in parts of the story that did not follow ‘Mark’s logbook’ format – such as scenes at NASA, with the spacecraft’s crew, and in political and media circles. I found them lacking in subtlety and flavour, with dry, one-dimensional stereotypical caricatures being employed as characters.
What was missing for me? Emotions, personal philosophy, past (personal life experiences), reflection, rumination, relationships, and perspectives on existence, meaning, and vulnerability. There was a lot of matter-of-fact drama, but it did not touch on ‘What does it mean to be an Earthian or a Martian!’
And last but not the least, the characters were not developed well enough. They seemed like people you know superficially. Alexander McCall Smith says that people find his characters (such as Mma Ramotswe) to be like a friend you can enjoy a cup of tea with. Maybe that was what I missed here.
About the reviewer :
Ruchir is counsellor and therapist practicing in Jaipur.