I recently read The Martian, a book perhaps more famous for what it leads to than what it is. Doubtless, more people have seen the Matt Damon film adaptation than read the actual book. The Martian also feels like a preparation for Project Hail Mary, a book written ten years later. The weaknesses of The Martian are removed or minimized within Project Hail Mary, while the strengths are amplified. As the stories are broadly similar, and the characters are not connected by a broader mythos, I’d recommend skipping The Martian and reading Project Hail Mary instead.
Both The Martian and Project Hail Mary focuses on an astronaut solving complicated problems with almost no contact with the outside. In both stories, he also serves as the primary narrator, recording what happened with a limited first-person perspective. In both the administration of the space program is basically benign with large resources but unable to help at the moment.
But Project Hail Mary is the superior book. Weir forces himself to say in the first person throughout Project, leading to a more original way of providing information. Project also engages with other science fiction on a deeper level – while in Martian the main character makes tongue-in-cheek references to other novels, Project in a deep sense is a response to the Three-Body trilogy.
The biggest improvement in Project Hail Mary is character. The hero of Project, Ryland Grace, has a moving character ark that begins as a generally good guy and ends with self-giving love for those far away and different from himself. Martian’s Mark Watney, though, is basically the same person (the same person that Ryland is at the beginning of Project) all the way through. In Project, Weir helps the reader join the hero’s transformation through his interactions with a particularly exotic interlocutor.
The Martian is a fine book. If I hadn’t read Project Hail Mary first I probably would have loved it. But now a decade after its release, I am happy to say that Weir has mastered his craft even more than before.
My only actual complaint about The Martian is the narrator. I read both books as unabridged audio. Will Wheaton, who narrates The Martian has a narrower dramatic range than Project narrator Ray Porter. Wheaton is a minor celebrity though, and perhaps this is why Amazon paid for a re-recording of Martian as read by him. Sadly, the original audio recording by R.C. Bray is not available on Audible.
I read The Martian in the Audible edition.