The Martian

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Read 03/04/2016-05/04/2016

Rating: 2.5 stars

I wanted to read The Martian because I like science fiction, and the premise sounded interesting. I had high hopes for it.

I borrowed it from the library so that I could read it for the March Madness challenge. I’m glad I didn’t buy a copy.

In the end (or even from the beginning), I was disappointed in it. I found it too tech heavy, but not in an over complicated way. I found the level of detail patronising. The amount of explanation of each technical action didn’t add anything to the story. It also felt like it needed a damn good edit to move it from serialisation to novel. I didn’t engage with the characters because they were quite sketchy, not fully developed enough to care about. There were some funny moments, but mostly the humour was juvenile and wearing. Millions will disagree with me, but I don’t know what the fuss is about.
I don’t want to be a literary snob. I’m all for the democratisation of things, including making it easier for writers to get published without needing all those things in place that make it slightly easier to get published, as much as authors and publishers might deny they exist. I do wonder about the lack of editorial support for writers who self-publish. I’ve read a couple of things now where it’s really apparent to me that an editorial eye cast over a manuscript would have helped to polish a rough diamond into a gem. The Martian is an interesting case because, after blogging then publishing through the Kindle platform, the book gathered such a readership that it was taken up by a publishing house. Only a slight edit was applied. I think it needed more than a slight edit, personally. But millions of others clearly disagree with me, and it is good that a writer can get a break and have such a popular success.

As I read, because I wasn’t particularly engaged and found it both juvenile and patronising, I recorded my thoughts about it in a Mark Watney style, logging my reactions as I moved through the chapters. If you haven’t read it yet, or not seen the film, you might want to stop reading this post here. There might be spoilers.

Chapter 1: I’m not sure about this. The main character, Mark Watney, comes across as dumb. That, or he thinks whoever will read his log is dumb. It’s as though he’s speaking to a child, over simplifying things, presuming that whoever ends up reading his log won’t understand unless he keeps it basic. He uses the phrase “for any laymen who may be reading this”. Does he not think that whoever discovers the log will most likely be another astronaut? Who else would be on a mission to Mars? Or are we supposed to think that anyone, including an idiot, can be sent out to Mars to conduct experiments for NASA? I know Matt Damon was cast in the film version, which I haven’t seen, but the character reads like Keanu Reeves in the Bill and Ted films.

Chapter 2: An example of what I mean – “The solar cell array was covered in sand, rendering it useless (hint: solar cells need sunlight to make electricity).” Well, duh!
Chapter 3: It reads like the author setting out all of the research he’s done in order to check he’s got his facts straight. At times it feels like I’m reading the research notes and background plotting to the novel, a first draft that needs to be edited down and have more narrative added. I get that the format chosen by the author, that of a daily log, doesn’t provide the same scope for the narrator providing context, but I really doubt that someone keeping a log on a Mars mission would put so much technical detail in there. From his tone of voice, I can’t believe Watney has a Master’s degree in biology and is a mechanical engineer, let alone that he made it onto a NASA space programme. The only reason I can think he uses the voice he does is that he’s been on an audience engagement/science communication course and is maxing out on oversimplification for a broad audience with different levels of understanding. Which sends me back to doesn’t he realise that whoever discovers the log will most likely be another astronaut? It would jar less if the conceit behind the log was that he was writing for a younger sibling or his own child.

I’ve caved in and done something I don’t usually do – I’ve read some background to the book. This is from Wikipedia:

‘Weir is best known for his first published novel, The Martian. He wrote the book to be as scientifically accurate as possible, and his writing included extensive research into orbital mechanics, conditions on the planet Mars, the history of manned spaceflight, and botany. Originally published as a free serial on his website, some readers requested he make it available on Amazon Kindle. First sold for 99 cents, the novel made it to the Kindle bestsellers list. Weir was then approached by a literary agent and sold the rights of the book to Crown Publishing Group. The print version (slightly edited from the original) of the novel debuted at #12 on The New York Times bestseller list. The Wall Street Journal called the novel, “the best pure sci-fi novel in years”.’

That makes sense. The structure so far is like a blog. I can see it working as a series of blog posts discovered to have been transmitted from Mars years after Watney is believed to have died. Why didn’t he do that for the book? I’m going to pretend that he did, so that I can get past my irritation.

Chapter 4: Watney is still annoying. Even with my trick of pretending I’m reading his blog. He’s now revealed that he’s writing the log for a “future Mars archaeologist”. Who would still be a NASA astronaut. Who would of necessity understand what survival on Mars entails.

Chapter 5: ” Long Story short” is irritating me. The gonzo humour is irritating me. How old is Watney? He has a Masters degree. He’s been through training to become a mechanical engineer. He’s been through NASA training to become an astronaut. He speaks like an undergraduate. An answer to an FAQ on the NASA website says the average age of an astronaut is 34. Thinking about some of the 34 year old males I’ve known in my life, I’ll let this irritation go.

Chapter 6: Oh! Some third person narrative! That’s better.

Chapter 7: “Yay! [insert thing to be over or sarcastically excited about]” and even just “Yay!” on its own are irritating me. Is Watney a cheer leader? I don’t know why this book is making me so grumpy. It just is. It annoyed me that someone who is a mechanical engineer, and whose job it was to install the solar panels onto the living accommodation when the mission arrived on Mars, wouldn’t know why the solar panels needed to be angled 14 degrees. I still think Mark Watney is an idiot. Despite all the clever science he’s carrying out in order to stay alive. You can be intelligent and still be an idiot. The science is also starting to feel like a huge Science Fair project that a particularly precocious high school kid might do.

Chapter 8: More third person narrative! Yay! (Ironic, moi?) We learn that Mark Watney was chosen for the mission because he’s a thinker, a man of great intelligence, and because he has a winning personality. Okay.

I prefer these interludes, where Weir gives us a story with dialogue and no ridiculous explaining every last thing as though the other person is stupid.

Chapters 9 & 10: Watney’s logs are becoming more human, less giant science project explained to an intellectual pygmy. He’s on a mission. I’m interested. Now that he’s not giving me tedious technical detail I don’t want.

Chapter 11: Too much nerdy wisecrackery. Not enough depth. Too much happenstance. It’s certainly pacey, though. Which means I’m whipping through it. Not because I can’t put it down. Because I need to get to the end so I don’t have to read it any more.

Chapter 12: I was confused for a moment, there. Watney asleep in his bunk. No log. Commander Lewis shouting the crew awake. Oh, we’re back at Sol 6. We’re reliving Watney’s ‘death’ and the events leading up to it. And then we’re 4 months later and the crew are being told Watney’s Alive! Vogel is a stereotype, the author was right to point that out. Such irritating smugness on Weir’s part.

Chapter 13: Oh, hello, yet another change in style. Some weird textual equivalent of a voiceover describing how the Hab canvas was made, punctuating a return to Watney’s logs. Presumably because it was made by humans, there’s going to be a problem with that canvas. Oh, and yes there is. Not because of human error, though. Because of the storm on Sol 6. I suppose we need a bit of jeopardy. Yawn. Watney is irked that NASA speak to him like he’s an idiot. Now there’s irony for you.

Chapter 14: Jeopardy didn’t last long. The regular references to math(s) being boring have finally started to irritate me. Weir needs to mix his stock phrases up, get some new ones. I’m not even halfway through yet. Nearly, but not nearly enough.

Chapter 15: Moral – don’t skimp on safety checks when you’re trying to save a life.

Chapter 16: China’s here to save the day! And Mutiny on the Hermes! This is turning into a Boy’s Own Adventure serialised story. But with astronauts instead of fighter pilots or submariners.

Chapter 17: Moral – always obey the laws of physics.

Chapter 18: Watney Wings It and, who knew, it all goes to plan. For now.

Chapter 19: Some weird typeface stuff going on. Italics to signify someone is speaking in another language and we’re reading the translation. Why? I mean, really, what is the point of that? We get some insight into the personal lives of the rest of the mission crew. I suppose because they’re going to experience some jeopardy, too, and we need to care about them.

Chapter 20: More Martian escape planning. An interlude where the 12 year old inner Watney imagines being a pirate. Mostly planning, pulling things apart, putting them back together slightly differently. It’s more interesting now Watney has stopped consciously describing everything as though he’s teaching primary school. He’s getting on with it. He has a deadline. It focuses his mind. I’m worried about all the potatoes he’s taking. How will he cook them? Are they already cooked? Why hasn’t he told us in great detail what his plans are for the potatoes? Watney, are you okay, Watney?

Chapter 21: I’m surprised it took so long for a James Bond fantasy to appear. He really needs to get better at sealing canvas together. Oh, and here comes a dust storm to mess things up. Thank goodness, too, for Publicity people who ask the questions that enable plot development. And I was right, there’s some jeopardy for the crew on Hermes. Plus, Watney answers my questions about the potatoes.

Chapter 22: It’s always best to set off early because you just don’t know what might hold you up.

Chapter 23: It’s not over ’til it’s over. Another change in narrative style tells us this portentously.

Chapter 24: Watney falls over. Watney gets back up again. Watney does a victory dance.

Chapter 25: I think even Andy Weir was growing tired. I’m certainly tired. Watney is tired. 28 pages to go.

Chapter 26: Watney really needs to learn how to seal canvas. When in doubt, blow stuff up. And always end schmaltzy.

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