Muddled sci-fi comedy thriller

The Martian – Andy Weir – [Book Review]

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
Nerd-fuelled space drudgery
Starring Nott Damon

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.

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6 thoughts on “The Martian – Andy Weir – [Book Review]”

      1. I haven’t, but my husband did. He said he got hooked because of the first chapter, but then it became quite repetitive in his opinion. It felt like the same thing over and over again, he didn’t finish the book, but then again he’s a very busy man. But to top it off, he’s not a big fan of reading, so for him to actually buy the book and read 3/4 of it, should probably say something.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think it’s quite accessible for people who aren’t generally fond of reading. It’s quite exciting, with short chapters, each ending with cliffhangers or humour. It was also, as Carol said, a serialised blog initially, so lots of recaps, which means you can put it down and come back to it later no problem.

        Shame he didn’t quite make it to the end, but I understand it; I was skimming a bit around the 3/4 mark.

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  1. I enjoyed reading you review on The Martian, even though I don’t totally agree with you. It’s no masterpiece, but it is entertaining. The last chapter was great and had me holding my breath.

    However, I too have some gripes with the book. The main one being the story recaps. I’m quite capable of remembering a plot without constant reminders, but as you say, it was originally written as a blog, presumably at various intervals, and this most likely accounts for the repetition. It could have done with a sharper final edit in my opinion.

    I agree with your point regarding the lack of description, but I think it would have been out of character for Watney to start waxing lyrical about surroundings that are capable of killing him. Plus, he’s described as a seasoned astronaut who’s spent years travelling to Mars, so his surroundings are no longer new or awe inspiring to him.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen the film, but I noticed they lifted a lot of dialogue straight from the book. This leads me to think he wrote it from a visual point of view rather than a literal one, and would go some way to addressing your dislike of the language used. After all we don’t usually talk in the same way as we write, and his words seemed fine in the film.

    I like your style of writing, you should take it up for a living.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Andy Weir is a bit like Thomas Hardy, really – in that their initial serialisation makes for an overly long narrative. That is the ONLY similarity, however.

      I did see the film, and yes, a lot of the dialogue is lifted straight from the book, which I was surprised about. I thought Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor in particular brought a lot of personality to what I had otherwise considered slightly ham-fisted characters; but that might be indicative of a lack of imagination on my part.

      To be honest, I thought the film was in many ways better than the book. Although they censored the blue language, and omitted a lot of the science calculations and even Watney’s difficulty post-airlock-breach in returning to the hab (some of Watney’s greatest hardship in the book), the fact that it was visual filled in the descriptive gaps of the book (which you rightly assert may have been a considered choice by Weir).

      And Damon did a good job of eking out some much-needed emotion from a book that conspicuously lacks any. Solid movie, all round.

      I agree, by the way; it was entertaining, for the most part. And thanks for the compliment! I’d love to get paid for writing, ha ha.

      Like

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