The Martian is science fiction in the classic mould, with the plot driven by the limitations of physics and human biology as much by the characters involved. That’s not to denigrate the character development; Watney is an engaging protagonist, as conveyed through the bulk of the story told through his diary entries. However, much of the tension of the novel derives from his lack of interaction with other people. The antagonists are the unforgiving planet he’s stranded on and the equipment he has to coax into doing things it was never designed for.
Although set in the near future, the technology is no more than a step ahead of what is available now. There are no magical fixes. There’s a lot of the sort of storytelling that the magazine Analog is known for, where characters’ lives depend on improvised engineering. Hence Watney has to convert a temporary habitat into a potato farm while other characters have to open an airlock with a bag of sugar. With no human antagonist, the technicalities were important to show just how precarious Watney’s survival was, but they never bogged the narrative down.
One thing I couldn’t help but notice in a narrative punctuated with cultural references is that I didn’t notice any from later than the 1990s. I may have missed one or two, but it did give me the impression that the world between now and then will be something of a cultural wasteland. I also couldn’t help but notice that there was only one emoji in the many transcripts of email exchanges, much as I’d welcome a future in which they are forgotten.
With the popularity The Martian, along with films like Gravity and Interstellar, I’m daring to hope that this sort of Clarkesque science fiction is coming back into fashion. I mean no disrespect to the excellent science fiction of the last couple of decades, but this is something I’d like to see more of.