by Andy Weir
Well, here we are again. Usually I dislike trying to review a book that I don’t particularly care for, but this is an exception. Had it been hard to really hit on what my problem with The Martian was, I’d probably make vague points until something started to make at least a shred of sense, but that wasn’t the case here: The aspects of the story I disliked were more or less apparent in this instance. And, had it been a largely unheard of book by an indie author, I’d probably feel bad about complaining about it. Given its huge popularity and the fact that it apparently won so many awards, I don’t think I have to worry about that too much.
Thinking Mark Watney died during a violent dust storm, the crew of the Ares 3 mission are forced to evacuate the Mars colony without him. He didn’t die, but the communication system was damaged in the storm. Now he’s forced to use his limited resources to survive the hostile planet and try to find a way to let people on Earth know he’s still there.
When talking about The Martian, I originally planned on discussing books versus their movie adaptations. The problem is: I have yet to see the movie adaptation for The Martian. Nonetheless, based on the way it’s written, I feel that the majority of the book would have been much more effective as a movie. For, a great deal of my dissatisfaction can likely be attributed to an author not understanding the limitations of his medium. Most of the story is told from a first-person perspective through Watney’s logs he keeps during his Martian stay. The problem with framing the story this way is that we’re given the protagonist’s account as to what happened without any non-verbal cues that would effectively show his emotional state or trigger stronger feelings from the reader. Even things that should have at least a bit of power just from the bare content, such as Watney recounting how lonely he is or mentioning that he cried for a bit, can’t bring us there and bring out the pain he feels because it’s just a dry recollection of events that we didn’t get to experience.
Of course, I would have probably at least partly forgiven this significant flaw to the story had Weir used this constraint to improve other aspects of it. Had the author used this perspective to control the information we’re given––by hiding details to the reader either because Watney is not in a position to mention them or because he’s also not privy to the information––he could have made the narrative so, so suspenseful. However, the only time I recall this happening was when Watney neglects to report something that I’m almost positive he would have mentioned: that he wasn’t just going on a longer test drive of the rover; that he was trying to recover the Pathfinder probe. This is much less satisfying than what I’m suggesting, mainly because it feels less like slowly arriving at the information the reader needs to figure things out and more like the author’s just withholding that information from you.
And I really think I would have appreciated the story more had Weir either stuck to just his first-person logs or kept things in third-person, rather than moving between the two perspectives throughout. For, it would have taken significant skill to fully convey his plot only through the logs. Otherwise, employing such constraints throughout his story feels gimmicky and unnecessary. Interestingly, the author was able to capture a great deal more feeling and excitement during the third-person passages––largely for the same reasons I was so dissatisfied with the first-person style. You start to wonder why he didn’t just stick to that.
But the story itself is fine. I mean, at its heart, The Martian’s about the human drive for survival and ingenuity overcoming probably the most unforgiving landscape imaginable. The problem is that it’s filtered through these logs, and, without the non-verbals, we’re basically left with unemotional math, science, and plot along with Weir’s/Watney’s constant attempts at humour. (And, if, say, a reader happens to not find a single joke funny, where does that leave us?)