I recently revisited Andy Weir’s The Martian, one of 2014/2015s most talked about books, soon to be a Ridley Scott movie starring Matt Damon. The Martian has been sold as the story of Mark Watley, who will soon become the first person to die on the red planet. When a sandstorm strikes the landing site of Ares 3, the third mission to the surface of Mars, Watney is injured and presumably dead. Abandoned by a crew forced to evacuate the planet, Watney soon regains consciousness, only to find himself isolated, with few supplies and no way of contacting Earth.
Two reads of this book, and I’m still not sure how to judge it. Part of the reason is that this book has a lot of plot, with little emotional sustenance. Half of the book is devoted to Watney’s journal entries, and after spending 150 pages with him, here are the hard facts I can tell you:
He has a mother and father
He’s from Chicago, and went to the U of Chicago
He studied botany, but doesn’t consider himself a hippie
He’s straight (we don’t learn this until 90% into the book)
He has a best friend
He considers himself a nerd
He’s Ares 3 botanist and mechanical engineer
People like him and think he’s a funny guy (we’re told this, but Jesus does Weir want you to come to this conclusion on your own)
I mean, that’s it–that’s our hero. There isn’t much there. Watney is essentially a distillation of Han Solo, Captain Malcolm Renyolds, and any other boyhood hero Weir had. Our hero is funny, he’s nice, he always finds a solution to a problem. I don’t consider the small amount of biographical detail to be a flaw in the story–if you can make a character feel whole with few details, that’s pretty impressive. Red Letter Media created one of my favorite tests for movies, books and TV–can you describe a character without mentioning their clothing, looks, role in the plot, or profession?
Side note–you should watch Red Letter Media’s review of the Star Wars prequels. They’re really weird, but also taught me a lot about pop culture analysis.
So who is Mark Watney? Mark Watney is resourceful, brave, and a creative problem solver. He’s good-natured, quick to joke, and emotionally buoyant.
What does this mean? He’s easy to root for and like! But he’s not very interesting. To go back to the Star Wars example–yes, Luke is heroic, Han is charming, and Leia is brave. But Luke is also naive, Han can be morally dubious, and Leia has shades of spoiled brat. Unlike Mark Watley, they’re well-rounded characters, with strengths and flaws.
Mark Watney is not introspective, and he’s not philosophical. I can only imagine he survived a childhood of suffering and abuse, with no PTSD and only the attitude that “hey, it could be worse!” because NOTHING gets him down. Only in passing does he mention frustration, and never depression. His lack of emotional turbulence goes beyond ‘even tempered’ or ‘optimistic’– he’s so upbeat it’s almost clinical.
And this is the major flaw with The Martian—
Yet for pure entertainment, The Martian mostly works. It really is a book you can read in one sitting. I honestly couldn’t put it down during the last 50 pages. I had a big goofy grin on my face when reading the ending. So why does it work? One factor in it’s favor is the solid science, mathematics, and engineering that propels the plot. Apparently it’s all sound–I say apparently because I got a C in my undergrad statistics course and my scientific knowledge is limited to remembering the King Philip Came Over For Good Spaghetti taxonomy mnemonic. But people who know more than me say it’s sound, so I’ll take their word for it. In fiction, my science fiction credulity falls to what I call the Star Trek divide–powering the Enterprise with a matter/antimatter combustion? I’ll allow it. Curing death with Khan’s magic blood? Fuck off J.J. Abrams. I digress–The Martian is filled with a lot of good science, which both instilled in me trust of the author, and is the reason I skimmed aprox. 30% of this book. A lot of the text is devoted to:
Something breaks/needs fixin’
Watney identifies the problem
Watney makes a dad joke about the problem
Watney talks you through the mechanical/chemical solution to the problem over the next four pages.
The first handful of times, this technical walk through was impressive and necessary for instilling trust in both the character and the author.But it grows tedious and dull. Like a CGI battle-sequence in a Michael Bay movie, or a rape scene in Game of Thrones, what should be harrowing becomes dull and route.
If Weir had been able to pair his science know-how with interesting character building and inquisition about the human condition, The Martian would have impressed. But if you gave two dozen MFAs the prompt “a stranded astronaut is about to become the first person to die on Mars”, you’d get two dozen treaties on isolation’s effects on the self. Replace the MFA with David Balacci, Clive Cussler and Vince Flynn, and you’d get a routine thriller with Khan’s magic blood. The Martian is a smarter thriller, marrying good science with good plot–it’s a unique book, even if it says noting unique about the human condition.
Reading The Martian transported me back to 2004, when I first read The Da Vinci Code. I realize this next statement will impress no-one, and convey how unsophisticated my tastes are, but the simple truth is that I really liked reading The Da Vinci Code (God, I feel dirty just typing that). Obviously I knew it was stupid, but man did I ever find it entertaining. And if you can honestly say you didn’t enjoy it (since I know that whoever you are you’ve read that book), than for the love of the sacred feminine as represented by a chalice, don’t bother with The Martian. There are better books to pass a long-haul flight with, but you could do a lot worse than The Martian.
However, Bri fucking hated it.