Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Martian - Andy Weir

The MartianI am probably one of the last people on the planet to read this book.  Well, that's not true.  Once the movie comes out a lot more people will read it.  But I am probably one of the last people on the planet who noticed this before it became a big hotshot movie starring Matt Damon to read this book.  Whew.  What a mouthful.  Anyway, as most people probably know, The Martian is the story of astronaut Mark Watney, a member of the third expedition to go to Mars, who accidentally gets left behind when the rest of his crew leaves.  To be fair to the rest of the crew, they think he's dead--and honestly, he probably should be, but he's not, and now he has to figure out how to stay alive until someone can rescue him.  And then there are the people on Earth, who have to figure out how to do the rescuing.

Parts of this book are written in first person, in the form of Watney's log on Mars.  Others are in third person, covering the folks on Earth and on the Hermes spaceship, where the rest of Watney's crewmates are.  Occasionally there is even a third-person bit focusing on Watney himself.  It's a strange melding of perspectives, but it works, mostly.

Let me divert a bit.  I've had this book for ages but hadn't read it until this past week.  My boyfriend, however, did read it--a rare instance when he gets around to a book before me.  He found Watney "insufferable."  He thought Weir made Watney try to be too funny, and it came off as annoying.  Many other people disagree with view; they find Watney very funny.  I found myself squarely in the middle.  To me, Watney came off as a guy who isn't really that funny, but tries to use humor--successfully or not--as a way of diverting stress, which is pretty common.  I thought it was a necessary character trait, because if his way of dealing with stress had been to just shut down (a la yours truly) then this would have been a very, very short book.  There was one main exception to this, though: those third person chunks that focused on Watney.  There weren't many of them, and they weren't long, but at those points I found him insufferable, because it was at those points--and not when Watney himself was narrating--that Weir resorted to descriptions of fist-pumping and celebration dances that were more annoying than anything else.  Other than the very end, I think the third-person Watney segments were pretty much completely unnecessary.

There's one other main complaint I have about this book, and it's that I feel it has a lack of dramatic tension.  Here's the thing: Weir isn't George R. R. Martin.  He doesn't kill characters just to watch readers writhe in outrage.  Which means that, from the very beginning, you know that Watney is going to get off Mars.  After all, why write the whole book just to have a rescue go bad in the last four pages and have him die?  There wouldn't be much point to that.  The result is that, while the survival aspect of the book is very interesting, it's pretty much the only draw.  There's some tension of "will this work or won't it" but you know that, even if it doesn't work, something else will.  It's like the movie version of the Apollo 13 incident: as terrifying as it must have been in the moment, when you're watching the movie, you know they're gonna live.  (Except if you were one of the viewers who found the movie "too unrealistic" because apparently "no one would have survived" that scenario.  These people do exist.  They probably also believe Apollo 11 never landed on the moon.)

I think there's also a difficulty with pacing in this book, but I'm not sure how to get around it.  The fact of the matter is, this book takes place over a long amount of time--more than a year.  Which is a heck of a long time to be stuck on Mars.  But because of the way it's written, with skips in time, it feels like a much shorter period.  I'm not sure how I would have recommended fixing this, and I think it's a common problem in books that take place over a long span of time.  Pacing is, I think, one of the most difficult parts of writing, and when you're writing something that doesn't necessarily have action happening every single step of the way, it can get tricky.

Still, the survival aspects of this were awesome, and as most people have said, it's a very scientifically-accurate science-fiction book, which is one of the reasons it's so popular.  I liked it, found it interesting, and also found it easy to follow, even though I have pretty much zero scientific knowledge myself.  It worked, and I think the realism of the scenarios and solutions really helped propel this into the star that is has become.  I'm certainly looking forward to the movie, and I think this is a great intro to science fiction to those who are a little leery of the genre because of how weird it can get.

3.5 to 4 stars out of 5.

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