So I finished reading The Martian – yay!
But now I have to write a review – bummer.
Why am I bummed out? Well, I could focus on the childish prose inherent in the protagonist’s epistolary narration, but detractors would argue his persistent wise-cracking is a character-building defence mechanism.
Instead, I could laud the compelling science behind stranded Mark Watney’s struggle to survive on Mars – and be shouted down by the literary brigade for valuing detail over drama; equations over emotion.
If I talk about the adolescent dialogue among Nasa’s supposed brightest, I’ll be derided…
If I admit the science got dull, I’ll be scorned…
And, if I try to parody the writing style in my review, I’ll just kind of explode…
So, yeah… I’m pretty fucked.
So I’ll build a space fence out of pieces of antennae and duct tape (mankind’s greatest invention) and attach a seat ripped from the Mars Rover to sit on, so I can straddle both sides of the criticism landscape like a disco dancer doing the splits.
For the yays
The concept is great – no question. The idea of someone being stranded on Mars and using their wits and some cobbled together equipment to survive for as long as possible for a rescue attempt is both original and comfortingly familiar, like Robinson Crusoe on Mars (as I’m sure it has been likened already).
It reminded me of a book I read years ago – An Island To Oneself – in which a Navy veteran strands himself on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific and lives there for six years, building his home, working the land and exploring the neighbouring isles.
I read it on my morning commutes to Southwark, zoning out to an idyllic world of simple survival and earthy workmanship. With less science and more slog, and moments of terrifying peril, it’s a lovely read – recommended.
Mars, however, doesn’t elicit this kind of romanticism; instead, it is aimed squarely at sci-fi suspense. And the science element is it’s greatest strength…
… but that’s about it.
For the bummers
There’s very little actual description of Mars itself. I’d have liked to know what it looks like – what are the sunrises like? Can you see the moons, Phobos or Deimos? What colour is the sky?
Nor is there much emotional content. Watney is rarely lonely, or depressed, or frightened, or penitent, or lustful. Some of the other characters have back-stories – they have wives, or kids or love interests. Watney has parents.
I’m not saying people with no romantic engagements are less worthy, but it leaves the character with little to miss from back home (apart from breathable air, drinkable water or organic matter of any kind).
It serves to paint Watney as just a goofy nerd (albeit a veritable genius), with no complex relationships to dwell on but doting parents. In a word: dull.
Instead, we have the constant, unerring sarcasm; the rather forced disco-themed punchlines; the adolescent renaming of kilowatt-hours per Martian day to “pirate-ninjas” (because: wicked cool!); and hilarious hexadecimal communication japes. It gets tired, a little quickly.
Finally, the dialogue between the characters on Earth is, at times, appalling. Everyone makes jokes like a bunch of teenagers, despite working for Nasa, whether they are top scientists or foul-mouthed flight commanders. And there’s enough cliché here to fill a Michael Bay film.
Sure, the writing’s weak, but it’s certainly a page-turner. So much so, towards the end I found myself turning the pages faster than I could feasibly read them.
Work, rest and play
As usual, I find myself being far too critical. I enjoyed The Martian, for the most part. But it’s not exceptional. More exceptional, I’d say, is the story behind its publication and subsequent movie deal.
Initially published for free in 2011 on Weir’s website as a serial, a growing readership asked that he published the entire collection on Amazon so that fans could read it offline on their Kindles. Setting it at the minimum price of $0.99, The Martian rocketed to the top of the sci-fi bestsellers list, garnering the attention of conventional publishers in 2013.
Its subsequent success in print prompted movie talks that same year, which began filming in 2014, with Ridley Scott and Matt Damon coming on board the project. Quite the meteoric rise from free web serial to Hollywood blockbuster in three years, without Weir even trying terribly hard to do anything with it!
Now that’s extraordinary.