18 January 2016

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

Mass market paperback, 435 pages
Published 2015 (originally 2011)

Borrowed from my wife
Read December 2015
The Martian by Andy Weir

I cross-post reviews from this blog on LibraryThing, where some 483 people have already reviewed The Martian, and so you don't need me to say if it's good or not, or if you should read it or not; you've already decided that, or you've decided you don't care. So instead you're going to get a semi-random pile of observations.

I probably wouldn't have read this (I am rubbish at picking up recent books [i.e., books published since the year 1900] if they aren't Star Trek books), but my wife bought it when she found it its protagonist was (like her) a botanist and insisted that I read it. Plus I wanted to see the film, so I figured I'd read it beforehand, because as much adaptation theory as I've read, I might intellectually believe that books and films are just different things in different media, but somewhere within my heart does lurk a book snob who watches movies and complains about all the things they changed. Anyway, it took me so long to read it despite my solid intentions of doing so that the movie's theatrical run has ended, so I guess I'm renting it from the library, which is a little bit of a shame, as I have made a point of seeing all the recent space movies that aren't about space battles (i.e., Moon, Gravity, and Interstellar), as it's a genre whose existence I'd like to see continue, and now I won't be supporting it financially.

That Mark Watney has a graduate degree in botany actually seems inaccurate: his specialty is in cultivating plants, which no botanist I've met does-- plus there's a joke about how everyone in his Masters program just wanted to grow weed, which really does not track with my experience. Perhaps a degree in horticulture would have made more sense? Watney is also a mechanical engineer, and clearly not only by training, but by temperament. My father is a mechanical engineer, and Watney reminds me of him: he looks at problems and he sees solutions, he tries and tries again and again to fix things himself, and he takes real pleasure in his abilities to come up with unconventional solutions. This line especially made me think of him: "I am smiling a great smile. The smile of a man who fucked with his car and didn't break it." Except I'm not sure I've ever heard my father say the f-word.

The Martian is, in a way, real Golden Age science fiction: what Asimov would call Stage Two, technology dominant. This is one of those stories where the whole point is seeing someone science his way out of a scientific problem, but instead of being a short story like most Golden Age sf, it's a whole novel-- but despite what conventional wisdom might have told us, it never wears out its welcome, and is usually quite fun. Seeing Watney move from problem to problem to problem has a thrill all its own, and I was impressed with how Weir kept me engaged throughout. Yes, the characters are thin (at least two of them seem to have had no more thought put into them than being "the girl one"!), but they're not the point. It's fun to see him figure out how to jury-rig a probe for communication, or triangulate his way out of a dust storm, or build a trailer.

Indeed, when Weir stretches out into something other than problem-solving is when the book fumbles a little; I found the moral about humans reaching out to help each other a little hollow given that the money, man-hours, and resources put into saving Mark Watney probably could have saved dozens or hundreds of other lives right here on Earth. The only thing I genuinely and completely didn't like was when Weir shifted into a third-person perspective for Mark, like when the airlock blew off the Hab. It jarred with the first-person perspective used for most of his scenes. Less bothersome was the somewhat transparent Hand of the Author at times; Mark is in communication with Earth exactly the right amount to make the plot work, and then he's on his own to stop the drama from flattening.

Upon finishing the novel, I looked up Andy Weir and not only discovered that does he write Doctor Who fanfiction about President Romana (why aren't you employing him, Big Finish?), but also realized that he was behind Casey and Andy, a mediocre 2002-08 webcomic that I never read consistently, but did occasionally dip into (because Weir is friends with David Morgan-Mar, creator of the excellent Irregular Webcomic!). And now he's made it big with a bestselling novel turned into a Ridley Scott film. It took him years to become an overnight success. It's a weird old world sometimes. (If you want to read about how The Martian made the transition from postings on Weir's cheap-ass website to blockbuster film, check out this highly informative podcast interview; it even has a full-text transcript, which allows it to overcome one of the things I hate about podcasts, which is that it takes me way longer to listen to something than to read it.)

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