The Martian: good fun through clenched teeth

This is one of those books I'm going to be grateful to for being popular, without having got the same thrill from it myself. It's awesome that a geeky book about a bloke bodging his way across Mars has turned into a massive bestseller – I'm all for stimulating public interest in science and space travel.

Car crash fiction (if it can go wrong, it does) is compelling, and we all loved MacGuyver, right? ..but I didn't love Mark Watney. Yes, he's smart, he's resourceful, he's unflaggingly positive and focused (especially by comparison to Cormac in The Explorer, although Cormac didn't have Mark's talents) – but his sense of humour was intermittently like nails down a chalkboard (and that's before we get to the throwaway line near the end about him raping the MAV. Wrong verb, dude. Wrong verb) and didn't always ring true. I am very tired of nerd playground stereotypes, and I don't buy them coming from a mech eng/botanist on Mars and his colleagues in NASA*.

Anyway, luckily this is a a small (if recurring) feature, and can be tuned out. Mostly, it's the expected catalogue of challenges, mini-disasters, risk-taking and victories for lateral thinking. This is adequately written and sufficiently engaging to keep me going (it had my uncle utterly glued, but then he's an engineer) without really doing a lot for me – by the end, I simply didn't care how the systems were being hacked together, although I still wanted to find out if Mark survived.

In spite of Mark's occasional sexism fail (see: sense of humour; yes, let's turn 'in space, nobody can hear you scream' to 'in space, nobody can hear you scream like a girl'), I loved that NASA was peppered with women, including astronauts and techs, and that one of them called the director on giving her work that was well below her ability.

Plus it made me laugh for the wrong reasons. Reading Excession (I think), I like the Attitude Adjuster for being a typically barbed Culture Mind name. Now I know it's also a maneuvering jet aboard a spacecraft, I like it even more.

So: The Martian is fine, it's entertaining, and it has broad appeal if you can handle high levels of technical tinkering, so it can get non-scifi readers interested in science and space. Yay! Oddly, I think I'd like it more as a movie, not least because if Mark Watney had on-screen charisma I'd overlook some of the things that annoy me in print when I have time to think about them.

…and having read it, I think more highly of The Explorer (because clearly I'm far more interested in existential personal stories; but then I always knew I preferred space opera to hard scifi). Chalk up my first 'do my star ratings really work' crisis of the year.


*Although I'm happy to be corrected on this. assures me this is exactly what (male) space scientists are like.