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