March 29, 2015

Andy Weir's "The Martian": A Promising First Novel

I’m usually of the mind that I will like science fiction, but the burden of world building is such that it is so hard to get right that very few people do. The further out you push your plot, the more you have to explain, or at the very least, you have to know as background of the story you are telling. Weir solves that problem by making the world he talks about one that is very much like the contemporary world but with Martian missions. There’s relatively few time markers that I noticed –one of the crew on the ship that we meet has a collection of 70s music and sitcoms, so it can’t be so far that they are utterly dated. Or not. Like I said, there are very few time markers.
What the book is is mainly the log of Mark Watney, who is a member of the third Mars mission. He is both a botanist and a mechanical engineer. After a freak accident, the rest of his crew leaves him on the Martian surface, thinking he was dead. The rest of the book is about how Watney tries to survive and the rescue efforts taken by NASA to retrieve him. Overall, it is an interesting book, and it was an easy read.

There are some issues, though. The bulk of the book is told through these logs he is inputting, and it tries to capture Watney’s personality, but they have the same sort of issues that everything written in epistolary form have – not all of the situations have a logical reason to explain why this person would be sitting down and explaining to whomever what happened in such detail. This is even stronger in the beginning, where there seems to be no hope, as he has been left for dead. There are additional problems with characterization. Watney’s first words in the book, as related to the log, is an F-Bomb. My first reaction to the character was that he didn’t come across as a super educated astronaut scientist. It took a while to really get a sense of the character’s voice, as for a huge chunk of the time; he is the narrator, inputting his logs.

A problem for me was structural. There was the log entry format, but then Weir slipped into a traditional third past omniscient for scenes at NASA and in the ship that his former crew occupied. It was as if he started in in the log format, but then he realized he wanted scenes off the surface of Mars and had to figure out a way to make that work. It doesn’t. If I were workshopping this, I would tell Weir that that was a point that needed work. He could have lost the log-entry structure and not lost any narrative urgency.

There is a further problem with characterization. Watney works alone, but I didn’t believe any of the relationships. At the beginning, as he was explaining through the log structure the other characters I didn’t feel any real warmth or depth of the relationship between these people who supposedly had spent a lot of time together. Even later, that never really developed for me. I was at first under the impression that Mark was an outsider for some reason, which was so under-worked. There’s also the problem that every one of the crew had like two doctorates, thus Watney was both a mechanical engineer and a botanist. It can be handwaved, but it is very important for the plot. Thus, it feels like a little much, like a super-hero with no weaknesses.

This leads into the narrative issues, in that so much of what Watney does is over explained. It goes back to the world building aspect. The author needs to know all this stuff to make the world work, but once he starts explaining everything it is too much for me. It made me think of that sort of dialogue in TV shows where once character says, “Run this through the GLC,” and the other replies, “You mean the gas-liquid chromatography machine?” And as a viewer, you know it’s just to tell the viewers what they talking about because they already know. It’s worse when they then go and explain the mechanism. Weir explains the mechanism.

I don’t point out all the flaws to be too critical. This is still a very well paced book that builds tension and makes you think how you would act if left behind on a Mars mission. The action builds and resolves and it is entirely satisfying. I’m just critical because of all that it is implies all that it could be, but it is not. I know I’ll watch for Weir’s next book with anticipation.