Wednesday, July 8, 2015

What I Read: The Martian

In the not-too-distant future, NASA (and other national space agencies?) have solved the problems of manned missions to Mars. Mark Watney is a member of one such mission, stranded on Mars after some patches of bad luck. The Martian concerns Watney's attempts to keep himself alive and an international mission to bring him back. (Um, spoiler I guess, but they figure out pretty quickly that Watney's alive.)

The Martian, originally a thing Weir wrote for shits and giggles and only put out on Amazon because people asked him to, has been blowing up in certain areas of the book blogosphere. It won a GoodReads Choice award in 2014, became a national bestseller, and is now slated to hit the big screen (starring Matt Damon, natch).

Good on you, Weir. You're living the dream.

Out of the scant few self-published novels I've read, The Martian definitely outclasses them all—probably because once it got picked up by Crown/Random House it was subjected to competent, professional criticism. That said, "the best self-published book I've read" is a pretty low bar. If The Martian stands out in that respect, it's otherwise much overhyped.

My biggest problem with The Martian is Watney. He is obnoxious and lacking in any emotional development, which I guess when you're reading a novel written by a space travel nerd is bound to happen. Don't get me wrong; I admire Weir's commitment to accuracy and detail. It's obvious that this is his jam and I can get behind that. But we never see anything beyond Watney's unflappable exterior, mostly because it seems like there's nothing there. There's never much HOLY SHIT I'M LOST ON MARS despair, just snark over his crewmates' poor taste in music and television. He treats the problems that could leave him to face a slow, terrifying death with an engineer's detached interest. And I don't think it's because Weir wanted to write that kind of character, as some people may argue; it's because Weir himself was more interested in solving hypothetical problems than writing about someone's inner journey, and the novel suffers because of it. Someone should have stepped in and managed that during the revision/editing process, but no one did. I guess they thought the book's target audience would be a bunch of other proto-autistic space nerds who find technical problems more interesting than people problems?

It pains me to write all of that because really, this should be the kind of hard SF that would have a perfect home on this blog. I really, really, really wanted to like it. But as someone who is just as invested in good writing as good science, I can't.

On the other hand, I'm glad that I can take this time to pimp out a short story from a back issue of Analog (November 2014), "Persephone Descending," that deals with more or less the same concept. It's the near future and countries have begun colonizing and mining planets and moons. Newly-formed Quebec (the separatists finally won) have decided to take the hostile and unprofitable Venus for themselves, to make a name for their new country. Without any valuable resources to mine, Quebec sets up research stations in the high atmosphere, opting for "contributions to science" rather than "profitable raw materials."

Marie-Claude is an engineer who ends up stuck in the unexplored lower atmospheres of Venus. She has the same engineering genius as Watney, and none of the snark or unbelievably cavalier attitude. "Persephone Descending" is everything The Martian should have been but isn't. The link I gave above has an excerpt, but not the full story. I don't know where else you can fin the full story except to try to find this particular Analog back issue.

But, back to The Martian. Don't go in expecting any kind of character study or serious drama. Go in expecting Weir to set himself up with a bunch of problems, all of which have feasible though impossibly clever solutions. Like a whodunit or a logic puzzle. Anything more than that and you're bound to be disappointed.


  1. See, I think what I liked about The Martian was Watney's lack of depth, hahah. I mean I do think his lack of seriousness went a little too far in some cases, because it makes him seem really unrealistic. If I were stuck on Mars I'd be crying on the floor of my HAB waiting for imminent death, whereas Watney's just like "ABBA sucks!"

    But I think it all comes down to what kind of book you're looking for. Personally, I don't always like reading books that are very deep and exploring someones emotional journey, because I read to escape from everyday life which is often already hard enough =P Are you going to see the movie? I'm not a Matt Damon fan, but I'll probably see it anyway!


      I mean you go a bit too far with the internal monologuing emotional journey and it could easily become unbearable, but without any at all and it's like...ugh. Watney is like th Platonic ideal of a redditor or something, he's just so damn quippy. I just went into it with wrong expectations: I was assuming it would be a character study when it turned out to be, as P. Z. Myers put it, "nerd fantasy."

      Here is what I think would have made The Martian really good, and this is a bold choice: written in the second person, as a sort of novel-length hypothetical situation. ("Okay, let's say that you're the engineer and botanist on a manned mission to Mars..." etc.) That way Weir gets to have all of his science nerding out, but it removes all of the OTT snarky "ugh disco~~~" stuff that makes Watney unbearable and unbelievable. And even if there still IS disco snark (have you heard my new band, Disco Snark?), it comes off much better (IMO) because there's no one "actually" trapped on Mars; it's presented in the framework of Weir just trying to be funny.

      Maybe? I don't know.