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I Suffered Through The Martian, So You Don’t Have To

Posted by Jessica Uelmen on February 3, 2015


Andy Weir’s breakout novel, The Martian, follows the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded on Mars. Watney was a member of the Ares 3 mission sent to study the Red Planet, when a severe dust storm causes the crew to evacuate. During the escape, Watney is impaled by debris and presumed dead by the team. The remaining crew departs, and a stunned Watney wakes up several hours later. The story then follows Watney’s fight for survival, and NASA’s attempts to bring him back to Earth.

Dear Mr. Weir, Who exactly did you write this book for?

The premise for the book is solid, and eerily foreshadows events that could fill our news feeds in the next 20-30 years. However, the flat characters, non-scientist mindset, and over-hyped disasters make The Martian a chore to read. At face value it’s intended to be a gripping survival story, but Watney’s trials and tribulations are more irritating than they are edge-of-your seat.

A Totally Unbelievable Main Character

My main gripe with Weir’s writing occurred within the first ten pages. Mark Watney, newly stranded on Mars, begins to log his adventures in the hopes that someone, someday might listen to them. Makes sense. However, the tone and style of writing is that of a 13-year-old MacGuyver who won a trip to Mars, not a trained NASA astronaut and mechanical engineer.

For example, as Watney works to escape the planet, he creates a new unit of measure. Apparently “kilowatt hour per sol” became too much of a mouthful, and he renames it to “pirate-ninja”. While some non-science types might find this entertaining and clever, I almost threw the book across the room. See, I can assure you that a scientist would never, EVER name a unit of measure something so far removed from its definition. You’d never remember what it was supposed to stand for! Heck, I ended up having to write it down, so that when the book inevitably referenced the pirate-ninja (*shudder*) again, I remembered its actual purpose.

Then, when Watney finally makes contact with Earth again, he’s asked to keep his language clean as the logs are public record. He responds with, “Look! A pair of boobs! -> (.Y.)”

While I’m at it, here’s several other instances that prove Watney is a 13 year-old at space camp and not an actual mechanical engineer/astronaut:

  • He doesn’t know why solar panels are angled at 14°. It’s a fairly simple explanation: because it’s the optimum angle to catch rays from the sun, thereby optimizing efficiency of the cells.
  • The “L” in LCD means “liquid.” Common knowledge for anyone working with tech, and also would probably be a key training point for astronauts: “Don’t take laptops outside.”
  • Regular use of phrases like “kill me to death”.


A One-Dimensional Supporting Cast

In addition to our main character’s implausible personality, we have a whole host of one-dimensional NASA employees. From the Venkat Kappor (Director of Mars Missions) to Mindy Park (Mars Satellite Image-Taker), these characters barely get enough page time to be memorable, yet alone develop as characters. Moments that should provide interesting insight into how a governmental organization handles such a crisis with the world watching, instead become a schizophrenic mess of bad jokes and ungrounded banter among colleagues.

“I’ll Save You the Math”

Watney’s crisis relies heavily on math. And he uses this line – a lot. It got old. If we’re operating under the pretense that this book is his journal, I’d think that he’d want to detail every single calculation, so that whoever found his journal could study and learn from his mistakes. In turn, his efforts could one day save the life of someone else caught in a similar situation.

Bad enough for Watney to say “I’ll save you the math”, but it was really irksome when engineers at NASA said it. I realize that this is done so the reader doesn’t get lost in complex calculations, but come on. These people are calculating complex orbital paths, knowing that any mistake would cost Mark Watney his life. No one would want to be saved math in this situation, they would want to triple and quadruple-check the calculations in order to be absolutely sure their desperate plans wouldn’t fail.

And don’t get me started on pirate-ninjas again.

“I’m pretty much fucked.”

I’ll admit, as the first line of this book, it was a great hook. Repeated over, and over – catastrophe, after catastrophe… it loses it’s flair. After all, he’s been fucked since the first page. Even when things are going perfectly to plan, he’s still stranded on an alien planet with a very slim probability of rescue. So the over-the-top reactions every time something goes awry is really unnecessary. Childish. Unrealistic.

The Verdict

In the novel, Mark once said, “It’s a terrible thing to have my life depend on my half-assed handiwork.” I say, “It’s a terrible thing to throw away hours of your life to this half-assed novel.” Skip it.

Or, if you’re a masochist and feel like commiserating with me, pick it up on Amazon. At least you’ll be supporting the Nerdy Show Network when you make your purchase.


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About Jessica Uelmen

Jess is just your average cat-herding, world-traveling, tech-loving otaku. She'll brazenly defend her love of Harry Potter and Sailor Moon to any who challenge it, and can usually be found under a stack of unread books and graphic novels.
  • Kenneth McFarlane

    Thank you for this. I actually had this on my list to get to eventually, but even if the rest of the book were stellar, everything you’ve outlined would have driven me fucking bananas.

    • Jess

      Always happy to help save someone some time!

  • armadon

    so what you are saying Jessica is that I have a chance at getting a novel published? alright, I’ll get on it

    • Jess

      Follow your dreams, armadon. This started our as a self-pub, then made the NYT bestseller list. Just, don’t expect me to hold back on a review. 😉

      • armadon

        do you think it made best seller due to the amount of people that purchased it to have an example to show others that “when you make a novel you really need to put more research into”?

        • Jess

          I wish that were the case – it seems a lot of people think the book is amazing. Matt Damon is even starring in the movie adaptation.

          My opinion is very much in the minority.

  • Zentropy

    One thing I don’t understand is that you keep pointing out how childish it is, and in your “about”, under the article, it is stated that you firmly believe that “growing up” is for suckers. You seem to imagine that what you think, goes for all scientists. That makes no sense. (“While some non-science types might find this entertaining and clever, I almost threw the book across the room. See, I can assure you that a scientist would never, EVERname a unit of measure something so far removed from its definition. You’d never remember what it was supposed to stand for! Heck, I ended up having to write it down, so that when the book inevitably referenced the pirate-ninja (*shudder*) again, I remembered its actual purpose”)That’s just overreacting.

    If you had done just a tiny bit of research, searching the web for 5 minutes for example, you’d have found that the science is not that bad at all. The author even wrote software to keep track of the craft and planet orbits, so it would actually be accurate on the days he is describing. In fact, it is possible to calculate back to which date the actual launch was/would be.

    I don’t understand your complaints about the angle of solar panels either. Do you think they are easy calculations? The author supposedly did a lot of research and calculations to at least present us with accurate data. I do not think it is fair to get your panties in a twist over this. The biggest flaw, which you have not pointed out, is the effect of a storm on Mars.

    As to the character Mark itself, I suppose that is a matter of personal taste. Admittedly, it was cheesy at times, but entertaining enough, to me.

    Here a talk where the author shows his software and explains things, including some flaws:

    Podcast on the science:

    2/10 shit review. Also: (.Y.) Lost a few points because of the way you advocate people to steer clear from an all right novel in the most arrogant way.

    • Screwyou Knope

      Yeah, the problem with the book isn’t so much the science and math (which let’s be honest, Andy Weir *could* have just fudged and it wouldn’t have ruined the enjoyment of the book for most people). The problem was that the main character lacked the demure and emotional intelligence one would expect of an actual NASA astronaut.

      Being smart is one thing, but there are a lot of really really smart people on earth. NASA also has to filter for things like, attitude, disposition, decision making skills, ability to follow orders, ability to cooperate, etc.

      Mark Watney has the disposition of an arrogant teenager. Regardless of how smart or accomplished he actually is, NASA doesn’t choose cowboy-hero-McGuiver types to go into space.

  • Max

    I couldn’t stand this book either; My biggest gripe (aside from the incredibly annoying habit the author had of converting every unit into at least two other units, presumably to try and provide a scope my feeble mind could comprehend “I had to drive 900 kilometers, which is like 9000 football fields laid end to end, or 3 million hot dog stands stacked on top of each other, but the Rover could only do 600 kilometers on a charge, which is like 42 empire state buildings laying sideways…I’ll spare you the math”-not an actual quote) was that the mission parameters seemed designed to fail in exactly that way, and be overcome in exactly that way. The mission plan took the parts of The Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin that would get people on Mars with technology we mostly already have and provide supply dumps around the planet, but left out the part where missions lasted years instead of weeks. I had much more engagement reading an actual mission plan for going to Mars (Mars Direct, outlined in The Case for Mars) than I did reading this “thrilling” take on it.

  • It is hard to give credit to the suggesion not to read a book by a person using an cartoon image as avatar.

    You wasted your time in writing this review, and I wasted my time reading it. Hope this comment is not wasted.

    • Matthew J. Robison

      Apparently you didn’t actually read the review, since it has content, which stands or falls irrespective of who wrote it, and addresses objective issues with the quality of the science fiction on offer. So you’re the only one who wasted any time. Unless you count me, now, of course, but I find being mildly annoyed at the internet saves me from being moderately annoyed at real life, so this has already served its purpose. Looks like you’re on your own…

  • Screwyou Knope

    Ug Yes!

    Mark Watney’s swearing and manner of speaking made him seem
    arrogant and unintelligent. The movie was slightly better than the book because
    specifically because they cut some of that out. In the book he swears
    constantly and does things like rename “kilowatt hour per sol” to “pirate-ninjas”.
    He comes across as someone with the emotional intelligence of a 13 year old
    (who just so happens to know most of the math and science off the top of his
    head), and does not have the level of demure I would expect of an actual NASA

    I’m cringing just thinking about it.

  • Rodric

    ‘See, I can assure you that a scientist would never, EVER name a unit of measure something so far removed from its definition. You’d never remember what it was supposed to stand for!’ Not exactly. Many units of measure bear the names of scientists, which doesn’t do too much to help one remember what they stand for: Newton (kg * m/s^2), Joule (N * m), Watt (J / s) etc. I was at first expecting a kilowatt hour per sol to be called a Watney, but Watney wasn’t pompous enough to name a unit after himself, so ‘pirate-ninja’ it was. (Come to think of it, Watney did consider himself a space pirate at one point in the story, so maybe he did kind of name it after himself.)

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