Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir Review (Unread 026)

I’ve known about Andy Weir’s book, The Martian, since its hardcover publication in early 2014. It had a bright reddish orange cover that made the book standout on the shelves. I bought a copy late last year when it was published in paperback and it took me until August to finally sit down and read it. In that time I didn’t absorb any of the book’s contents other than what was included on the back cover. As always, I’m only getting around to reading the book several months later but dammit, there are too many books and so little time. Thankfully the trailer for Ridley Scott’s film adaptation lit a fire under me and I snatched the book from off the shelf. Weir’s first outing as a published author caught me by surprise. He deserves the praise he’s received so far, but I also think he deserves a better editor and an opportunity to tell a refine his craft and tell a different kind of story, something that will allow him to spread his wings and improve as an author.

Anybody taking the time to read this is probably familiar with the story. Astronaut Mark Watney gets stranded on Mars after the crew he’s on is forced to terminate their expedition. Left behind on an unforgiving planet, he has to find a way to survive several hundred days and travel several thousand miles over very rough terrain in order to be rescued. The problems are many, he doesn’t have nearly enough food to survive so long and all of his equipment wasn’t designed to last beyond a few weeks or operate in the way he’ll have to use them in order to stay alive. The odds are certainly not in his favour but Watney has one advantage. As a botanist and a mechanical engineer, he has science on his side. Add to this that he has far more time than he knows what to do with (boredom is one of his many struggles) he nonetheless develops a plan for his survival and works on it daily. His ingenuity is his making survival in the most difficult conditions a possibility.

The book is told in daily journal entries (some days have multiple entries). What feels like a writing choice by the author is probably a requirement of the kind of story Weir is telling. It’s full of speculative uses of existing or near-future technology. As such, it’s advanced stuff and he needs a way to convey the complexity of the science to his readers. If you can’t be engaged in the science at work in The Martian than you can’t be engaged in the story. Because Watney is building a lot of the tools required for his survival and he’s using tools built by NASA in ways they weren’t intended on being used, Weir had to explain several things, such as how the NASA developed equipment  work, how Watney is modifying it, and generally explaining a lot of things to the reader. Some of those things are very complex and few readers would be able to understand them in great detail (including me). This posed a particular problem for Weir which is to explain specific applications of science in general terms that layman readers could understand and absorb.

The journal entries allow for this kind of info dump to happen in a way that is less intrusive than if it was done by a narrator. It gives Watney the opportunity to explain to potential, readers (fictional readers from the book included) how he survived. It also served as a distraction for Watney. For Weir, it gave him a way to develop a character without being able to rely on things like conversations with other characters. A lot of Watney’s character is presented in his writing. A lot has been written about his particular kind of dark humour which he uses as a survival tool. Being faced with constant setbacks, screw ups, a few explosions and decompressions, not to mention a lot of psychological trauma, his ability to laugh became another survival tool. Not to mention, it probably played an important role in keeping him sane during his time on Mars.

What I liked the most about the journal entry format is that it allowed Weir to write very technical descriptions and step-by-step processes without being as dry as something akin to a user’s manual. Admittedly some parts of the book are very dry, but having most of the technical details conveyed through a character’s personal filter helped. At least, it did for me.  Whether you enjoyed the technical or specialized knowledge of the book you have to admit that Weir is a skilled writer when it comes to this sort of text. This and the use of innovative problem solving using the limited equipment  and resources on Mars are some of the highlights of the book. The development of the “what if?” scenario is equal parts fascinating and terrifying, without ever being morbid. I think that the morbidity is lessened by Watney’s personality and humour.

I’ve read a few negative appraisals of Watney as a character, specifically his use of dark humour and sarcasm. Some reviewers at Goodreads mentioned that they found this humour to be juvenile and demonstrated that Weir, despite his grasp of the technical manual writing style, is a poor writer. References were made to overzealous bloggers with limited social skills as well as the juvenile geekery as seen on television shows such as The Big Bang Theory. I’m sorry to say that those readers a more than a little tone-deaf. The use of sarcastic “yays” and “boos” isn’t there to illustrate some sort of stagnant immaturity on Watney’s part. His humour is a coping mechanism that contributes to his overall survival. Like the surgeons cracking jokes in the middle of difficult and bloody surgery on M*A*S*H or Spider-man’s compulsion to crack jokes in the middle of life threatening battles with supervillains. Mark Watney isn’t an example of the stereotypical geeks of pop culture, but a stranded astronaut. He’s a scientist who is well aware of the impossible situation he’s in and he’s trying to deal with that by writing slightly angry, off-the-cuff comments in his journal. He’s using science as a mean of surviving physically but he’s uses a daily journal and jokes (good and bad) as a way of helping himself survive mentally.

While I have a lot of nice things to say about The Martian it’s far from a perfect book. It’s blatantly clear that Weir is a novice writer and even though his first published novel is very skilled in some ways, there is room for improvement. Two things stood out for me. The first is that there are changes in writing style. At one point in the book it inexplicably shifts from the journal entry style to an omniscient narrator for a few pages. It reads like Weir wrote himself in a corner and the best idea he had to get out of it was a change in style. I have no issues at all with the style shifts during the chapters set on Earth, but the narrator shift in the last quarter of the book was odd.

My biggest criticism though is the last few paragraphs. Here, Weir awkwardly and clumsily tacks on a theme about humanity’s universal concern for his fellow man. I have no problem at all with the theme, just the way that it was included. You would think that a character spending almost two years in complete isolation would have had plenty of time to think about this sort of thing in his daily journal. This is the kind of book that has a lot of potential for this kind of thematic message. It’s almost there on every page of the book. It’s incredible what we will do, the effort we will make, to survive. Collectively, it’s almost frightening to realize how much we will accomplish in order to help even a single person (and the flip side of that is equally frightening and equally true). The Martian practically begs to infuse its story with such rich sub-text. Yet, when it came down to it, the whole thing is added on the last couple of pages, almost like a side note or a post script. I don’t have the facts as to how or why those paragraphs were written but my impression is that Weir saw the potential for it in the text and rather than rework a few sections in the rest of the book to include this message, it was slapped on at the end. It reads like a half-assed consideration before sending the book to press. Maybe it has something to do with the book’s publication history (it was serialized on Weir’s website, published as an ebook, and finally getting the hardcover treatment). I don’t know the reason behind it, but it irks me.

Even with its flaws The Martian is an impressive debut. It harkens back to the tradition of hard science fiction, but what I loved the most about it is the scientist as hero. It’s something we see too little of in our mainstream fiction. Certainly you can find this hero is many science fiction books, but it’s not something you usually see in huge bestsellers with a movie adaptation schedule for release. I like my action heroes, but we have so many of them already. It’s refreshing to see a single man like Watney focused on his career and being able to survive in an incredibly hostile environment using his hands and his brain and anything that happens to be lying around. He’s space MacGyver! Watney is brave as hell and he’s forced to take on plenty of risks in the name of survival and problem solving. But he’s intelligent and applies science as his main tool for staying alive and finding a way back to Earth. I’m not suggesting that science heroes should replace action heroes. I’m simply celebrating a different type of hero.

A few weeks ago I celebrated the audacity of Ursula K. LeGuin’s use of heroism in everyday life as one of the subjects of her novel Tehanu. Astronaut Mark Watney is another kind of hero. The men and women of NASA and the crew aboard the Hermes are all different types of heroes and we don’t often see them in books that get his level of publicity and fame. Best of all, Weir managed to make Watney’s time on Mars a riveting, edge-of-your-seat read. He also managed to make it funny and very informative. I’m still surprised at the success of such a combination and I’m extremely curious to see if Weir will continue writing. He’s got my attention now and I hope he continues to surprise me.

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