The Martian- Book Review

Posted: October 7, 2015 by Jaden C. Kilmer in book review
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Copyright 2011, Andy Weir

Copyright 2011, Andy Weir

A plan never survives first contact with the enemy.

So, there’s this movie out. And Matt Damon plays an astronaut that gets left behind on another planet. No, not THAT movie where Matt Damon plays an astronaut left behind on another planet. The other one. You’ve probably seen the commercials. And like a lot of blockbusters, it’s based on a book. I love had sci-fi and I’m quite excited to see the movie, but seeing as I’ve had the book lying around for two months, I decided to speed read through it to see just what all the hullabaloo was about.

So what’s the verdict?

Well…

Protagonist Mark Watney is a cool dude. He’s got a razor sharp sense of sarcastic, nerdy humor and a brilliant mind. His MacGuyver in space routine works because it’s all believable. Author Andy Weir uses real-life science throughout the whole book and Watney’s solutions are never magic wands that solve things perfectly. It’s great to see him jury rig and improvise his way through his ordeal because, even when he survives another day (or sol, since it’s on Mars.) there’s always a lingering threat to his survival.  (Side note: speaking of magic wands that solve everything perfectly, maybe it’s a good thing Doctor Who got rid of the sonic screwdriver. What do you think, Josh?)

But here’s the thing: It is so very clear that Weir is a programmer, not a writer.

His paragraphs often imitate the form of a math word problem from elementary school rather than prose. For example:

“I can create O2 easily enough. It takes twenty hours for the MAV fuel plant to fill its 10-liter tank with CO2. The oxygenator can turn it into O2, then the atmospheric regulator will… pull (O2) out of the air and store it into the main O2 tanks.”

yawn.

Or how about this one.

“They needed a more reliable source of power. So the MAV comes equipped with an RTG. It has 2.6 kilograms of pluonium-238, which makes almost 1500 watts of heat. It can turn that into 100 watts of electricity.”

Riveting.

And to be clear I’m not just pulling a couple of quotes out of context or anything here. The book is littered with these sort of passages. Weir insists on relying on math to effectively convey the gravity (I’m so sorry*) of the situation. And maybe someone who’s really interested in the sciences will get more enjoyment out of it, but the fact is formulas and numbers are never going to be as effective at eliciting an emotional response as well-written prose.

The problems continue to a greater extent. What Weir lacks, in my opinion, is the most important tool in a writer’s toolchest. Imagination. (Cue the SpongeBob meme.) He never even so much as takes the time to imagine what the Martian sky would look like with two moons instead of one. Our first real visual at all in the novel comes 100 pages in. Not kidding. It takes about 100 pages for Weir to actually describe what the Martian landscape looks like. Visuals on the whole are largely absent. There’s only one brief description of a character’s appearance, (and it’s a rather minor character) and the one time Watney describes looking out at Mars he calls it “incredible” but doesn’t paint the picture at all. Weir doesn’t even imagine what Watney could do in the time he spends alone on Mars to entertain himself. He reads books and watches old TV shows brought to Mars by his crewmembers that got left behind, but that’s it. And that, frankly, is just not accurate.

You see, despite all the STEM science Weir puts into the novel, he neglects the one most important (at least in my humble opinion) for writing. Psychology. We get almost no insight to Weir as a person beyond “sarcastic and resourceful.” He barely ever talks about earth, or how lonely he is, or how bored he is. And the fault here is Weir not being able to think outside the box… which is strange because that’s exactly the kind of character he made in Watney. I mean, I can probably think of ten things right now off the top of my head that I’d do to entertain myself on Mars. And it’s that lack of imagination, that lack of the human psyche, that makes this book feel oddly dry. It’s an incredible tale of ingenuity and determination in the face of impossible odds and yet… there’s so little emotion here. The one time Weir almost lets his character express some sort of deeper, emotional thought, he stops himself short and has Watney interrupt himself to make another snarky joke instead.

The bottom line to this criticism, if you’re reading this Mr. Weir, (you’re not, but it’s cool to think you are) is that all the time spent making the science as real as possible has not been spent making the characters as real as possible. Many of them are one note characters, and none of them seem to grow or even express something emotional or powerful. Every last one of them is just a part of the plot. Not even Watney feels genuine. The snarky gallows humor can’t sustain the novel by itself. There needs to be more.

I’m going to give this book out of 5 stars and if that seems generous after reading this review, it’s because it probably is. But there really is a great, universal story here. And all the effort and time put into making this so realistic and accurate is great, and sets this book up to really stand out. It really just needs some inkling of an emotional or psychological punch to it. It’s something I hope the movie delivers, because the book did not. I’m reminded of a quote from the band Nightwish: one that took me forever to understand, and now believe in fully: “Careless realism costs souls.”

*no, I’m not sorry.

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Comments
  1. This review of the Martian was perfect. Although this book has an interesting plot and Mark Watney is humorous I didn’t like the writing at all. Andy weir is not that talented of a writer in my opinion so I am glad somebody agrees with me! You wrote an incredible post by the way and I love your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jaden C. Kilmer says:

      Thank you! I am happy to see that I’m not alone here, especially after reading quote after quote on the cover about how gripping the writing supposedly was. I do believe the movie has a great chance to deliver the story Weir aimed for, however. Crossing fingers!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have seen the movie and when I say it is sooo much better than the book it truly is! If only the book was as good as the movie. Truthfully though the movie is incredible and portrays the story which should have been portrayed because the movie was gripping as hell! Where as the book was not despite its amazing false views!

        Like

  2. […] Prentice) and I went to see Ridley Scott’s The Martian in theatres. I had read the book, (and wrote a review about it!) he had not. We do, however, both love science-fiction and critiquing things. After a brief odyssey […]

    Like

  3. Jim says:

    While I agree that ‘The Martian’ is lacking in passive emotional engagement and personal drama, I would contest that that is not the point of the novel.
    It is ultimately a matter of taste, because the passages you’ve pulled here and damned as so dull are, to me, thoroughly engaging. Weir rights like a man who can break a problem down, identify a solution, work through it, and then effect it. That is, fundamentally, what ‘The Martian’ is about.
    It would be tonally wrong for Watney to wax lyrical about the beauty of the Martian sky, or the infinite loneliness of the cold desert, or to focus on the emotional aspect of his situation in any other way. He is an engineer, not a poet.
    Ultimately, it comes down to a difference of appeal. To people who want a story driven by events, with a more clinical style of writing, ‘The Martian’ is fantastic. For people looking for a more emotional story of personal drama, not so much.

    Liked by 1 person

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