The main character of The Martian is Mark Watney, a botanist and mechanical engineer who gets stranded on Mars. The mission he was part of was forced to evacuate due to an intense storm, but Watney was hit by loose debris, lost in the storm and presumed dead as the rest of the crew heads back to Earth.
One of the best indicators of Mark Watney’s personality is the very first lines of the novel:
“LOG ENTRY: SOL 6
I’m pretty much fucked.
That is my considered opinion.
Fucked.” (p. 1)
This immediately establishes the overall tone of the novel, which is mostly told through written logs as Watney documents his life. Through the course of the novel, we learn that Watney often uses dark humor to cope with his situation. He also has no respect for what he considers pointless bureaucracy; he feels that the people at NASA are breathing down his neck when he knows full well what to do, as can be seen in this quote:
“My conversation with NASA about the water reclaimer was boring and riddled with technical details, so I’ll paraphrase it for you:
Me: ‘This is obviously a clog. How about I take it apart and check the internal tubing?’
NASA: (after five hours of deliberation) ‘No. You’ll fuck it up and die.’
So I took it apart.
Yeah, I know. NASA has a lot of ultra-smart people and I should really do what they say. And I’m being too adversarial, considering they spend all day working on how to save my life. I just get sick of being told how to wipe my ass.” (pp. 179-180)
This disregard for authority is contrasted with genuine respect for his commander, Lewis, who made the difficult decision to leave Watney behind when leaving Mars. As communication is established between Earth and Mars, the first thing he does is to make sure that everyone knows that she made the right decision. This also extends to his fellow crewmembers, making him a more nuanced character than it might first appear.
The main theme of The Martian is unity, and more specifically how extreme circumstances and a common goal can make us look past our differences. This is portrayed and discussed in a few different ways, mostly through how everyone on Earth follows what happens at NASA; Mark Watney even gets his own dedicated news show. However, this is best shown in two instances, the first of which is when the crew receive word of a space maneuver that NASA has rejected for being too risky that would send them back to Mars to retrieve Watney (this part of the novel is not written in log book form): “’ Are we going to do it?’ Johanssen asked. They all looked to Lewis. […] ’We’ll only do it if we all agree. And before you answer, consider the consequences. If we mess up the supply rendezvous, we die. If we mess up the Earth gravity assist, we die.’ […] ‘Sign me up!’ Martinez smiled.” (p. 248)
The crew never hesitates when considering if they are going to spend an extra 533 days in space so they can go back and rescue their crewmate. The risks of failure and death are great and going back to Mars means not seeing family and friends for over another year, yet when they are given the chance to rescue the man they left behind, there is no question about it; Watney is part of the team and going back to rescue him is a matter of course.
The second instance of this theme being very apparent is at the end, when Watney talks about what it took to get him back. The notion of saving someone who is part of the team is expanded when considering that the entire population of Earth is the “team”, working together to bring Watney home. In the very end of the novel, he explains it like this:
“I think about the sheer number of people who pulled together to save my sorry ass, and I can barely comprehend it. […] The cost for my survival must have been hundreds of millions of dollars. All to save one dorky botanist. Why bother? […] If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do. And because of that, I had billions of people on my side.” (pp. 424-425)
At face value, this novel is an account of how to grow potatoes on Mars (much of the early parts of the novel detail how Watney will secure his basic needs), but by the end, it has evolved into a story about compassion, trust and unity. It talks about what we are willing to sacrifice in order to help each other and how we are capable to look past our differences in order to achieve a common goal. In this case, it is not really about Mark Watney specifically; it is about what he represents, and what it would say about us as a species if we were to leave him behind.
The language of The Martian is extremely technical; the novel devotes pages to describing complex chemistry and physics that Watney needs to use in order to survive, but it is also very funny. Watney’s sarcasm and humor constantly shines through in the log entries and communication between him and NASA. The parts where the novel is describing the events at NASA are written more traditionally, and at one point the two styles of writing themselves are used to deliver one of the best jokes in the novel:
“Teddy swiveled in his chair and looked out the window to the sky beyond. Night was edging in.
‘What must it be like?’ he pondered. ‘He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?’
He turned back to Venkat. ‘I wonder what he’s thinking right now.’
LOG ENTRY: SOL 61
How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.” (p. 76)
The log entry format provides insight into Watney’s mind and makes sure that the reader knows what he knows; no more, no less. He details his plans in advance, and if/when something goes wrong, the reader gets to hear about it after the fact, once Watney has gotten himself to safety and is going over something he overlooked.
This novel is not for everyone; it is for the most part about a scientist talking about very advanced science, but it is also filled with humor and a surprising amount of heart and humanity.