So, I am in my office, pretending to do my job at Country Pizza & Italian Grill, and my computer screen is blinking at me with a list of casualties. No, I am not planning a terrorist attack. I am trying to decide who will survive the naval battle in my next book, and that’s when George R.R. Martin walks into my place. He looks just like he does in his pictures, with his dwarfish physique and square rimmed glasses and Santa Claus beard. He even has his trademark suspenders and fisherman’s hat. But he’s a lot taller than I’d expected. Naturally, I’m thrilled to see him, immediately going into the battle I have planned. “I bet it’s a lot easier for you, heh, heh,” I sheepishly remark, “killing off characters when you have so many!” He looks at me annoyed, like he gets this sort of thing all the time. “Please,” he says, “I just want my pizza.” Right. I’m not a writer, after all, just a pizza guy. Who the hell wants to listen to anything the pizza guy has to say? And then, before I can convince him that I’m more than a restaurant employee, my daughter wakes me up. Yep, I just pulled the “it was all just a dream” ending. Deal with it.
Now, what does a dream about George R.R. Martin (damn writers and their Rs!) have to do with The Martian by Andy Weir? Absolutely nothing. I just want to point out that I may not be the most unbiased reader. In fact, it’s starting to become a real problem; I can’t read fiction without comparing it to my own writing, which is why I can’t bring myself to finish A Song of Ice and Fire, though I managed to get through half of the third book. Even the show is a bother. People just can’t shut up about it. Everyone at work is like Game of Thrones this and Game of Thrones that. My wife’s nieces, who live in North Africa, are fucking talking about Game of Thrones at the dinner table. Martin is the anti-Lucas: everybody loves him. If I try to discuss my novel with my nephew, he can’t help but remark, “Hey, that’s just like Game of Thrones . . .!” George R.R. Martin is haunting me, even in my dreams!
So, I limit myself to things I don’t write, like non-fiction and hard Sci-Fi. But, truth be told, I penned something very similar to The Martian in college, a short story about an astronaut stranded on the red planet. Mars really fascinates me, because it’s a fantasy world that’s real, as real a place as Starbucks or McDonalds, as real as you or me. Now imagine looking up at the night sky and seeing Earth, all your friends and family and everything you’ve ever known, as nothing more than a pale blue dot. The thought of being stuck there, alone, is utterly terrifying to me, which makes for one brilliant concept. But I’m not really bummed that Weir beat me to it, because this is a book I could never have written, because The Martian is HARD Sci-Fi, and it doesn’t get any harder. As far as my limited knowledge goes, and I do love Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye and Michio Kaku, everything in this book is entirely plausible. Andy Weir knows his shit. On the downside, the story often gets bogged down by the technicalities, to where you’re left wondering whether it’s fiction or a How to Survive Being Stranded on Mars Guidebook. If passages like these don’t put you to sleep, you might really enjoy The Martian:
The regulator needs to send air to the AREC, then the return air needs to bubble through the heat reservoir. The regulator also needs a pressure tank to contain the CO2 it pulls from the air.
Where I felt the author to be lacking was in his knowledge of literary writing. I can’t be too critical, this being his debut novel, but when the author isn’t explaining science, The Martian can come off as amateurish. I got the impression that his home library consists of many textbooks, though very few classics. And, while you may be thinking, duh! . . . this isn’t supposed to be Shakespeare, when you consider the stunning prose found in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Weir leaves you sorely wanting. On rare occasions, however, the author will channel his inner-Asimov to give you a passage like this,
Once I’d shut everything down, the interior of the Hab was eerily silent. I’d spent 449 sols listening to its heaters, vents, and fans. But now it was dead quiet. It was a creepy kind of quiet that’s hard to describe. I’ve been away from the noises of the Hab before, but always in a rover or an EVA suit, both of which have noisy machinery of their own. […] But now there was nothing. I never realized how utterly silent Mars is. It’s a desert world with practically no atmosphere to convey sound. I could hear my own heartbeat.
Now that’s the kind of writing that keeps me awake and reading! A nice little passage, conveying both atmosphere (literally and figuratively) and emotion. And yet, Weir seems almost embarrassed by anything that isn’t too technical, following the above paragraph with, “Anyway, enough waxing philosophical.” It makes me wonder whether his publisher turned him away from that word they dread, philosophy.
As for the hero, Mark Watney is a brilliant and resourceful guy, and funny to boot. One of his most endearing qualities, in fact, is his perpetually upbeat attitude. Even in the most dire of situations, he’s cracking jokes. Here’s a quote and the novel’s opening line,
“I’m pretty much fucked.”
I suppose this reflects on the kind of qualities NASA looks for in an astronaut, and if The Right Stuff is to be believed, Mark Watney could easily be placed on a pedestal alongside real life heroes Chuck Yeager and John Glenn. Unfortunately, this kind of bravado can suck a lot of the drama from a story. I am not saying he should be freaking out every other sentence, like the protagonists in The Maze Runner, but Watney is stranded ON MARS, for Christ’s sake. At the very least, I would have loved to have had a few more passages about what it’s like to BE there. Ben Bova, a father of hard science fiction, captured the feeling of being on Mars in Mars, without resorting to sappy sentimentality.
Finally, I have to complain about the ending. Traditionally, every story should have a climax, followed by a resolution. Now, I’ll be the last to insist on rules in fiction, but in this case, the book desperately needed more of an ending. It reminded me of my mother, who watches soap operas just to learn what happened, as if that’s all that really matters in a story. Just the facts, Ma’m, thanks. Imagine Frodo dropping the ring into Mount Doom, then turning to Sam and saying, “Good job, now let’s go home,” followed by THE END.
Despite its flaws, The Martian isn’t a bad book by any means. It’s funny, informative, and engaging enough to keep you turning pages. But given the subject matter, and knowing how much more it could have been, it is a bit of a letdown. Andy Weir is a lot like his protagonist, Mark Watney, a brilliant guy with a vast knowledge of science; my only advice to him would be to take a break from Newton and pick up a little Bradbury from time to time.
MY SCORE: The Martian ** 1/2