Review: THE MARTIAN – Andy Weir

18007564Not for the first time I find myself in disagreement with the general consensus about a book: probably the huge amount of praise received by The Martian raised too many expectations, since I went in believing I would find a story about survival against unsurmountable odds, about a man having to face total loneliness and encroaching despair.  I believed it would be a great study of the human mind and soul when confronted with terrible obstacles, and a wonderful chance for strong characterization.

Sadly, it was not so.

The main character, Mark Watney, does in fact relate his journey of survival on the unforgiving surface of Mars, after the rest of his crew left him for dead on the red planet, but while the narrative gives us a lot of technical details about what the stranded astronaut does to ensure his own survival, I could not grasp anything about the man doing all these things. His journal conveys nothing beyond the reports on his progress on a series of tasks: the subjects of loneliness, fear, isolation, loss of contact with family and friends just are not there. There is not even a single moment when he rants and raves about being left marooned on Mars, the kind of moment everyone would have indulged in before getting on with the business of survival. It would have been the human thing to do, after all. But it does not happen: even when he briefly touches on the subject of his loneliness, it’s more like a passing thought, not unlike those we entertain about the weather, rather than the soul-shattering considerations I expected.

The overall tone felt wrong: Watney comes across as chirpy and somewhat immature, not at all the trained, adult scientist he is, the frequent use of “Yay-this!” and “Yay-that!” in his musings stridently at odds with the situation. The only moments when something approaching emotion comes up are those when he makes sarcastic comments about the entertainment programs left behind by his crewmates, jeering and scoffing at the quality of music and tv shows and never – not once – giving a thought to the people he lived and worked with for long months.  For the rest of the time Watney makes silly jokes about his life expectancy or the dangers he’s facing, so that I never had the true perception of the danger, of the life-and-death struggles he faces day after day. Of the suspense and uncertainty that should have been this story’s main ingredients.

At some point I thought that this might have worked better as a humorous manual (think Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy) about how to survive on Mars: as such, with no pretense of creating an endangered character, it could have been a fun read. As it is, the dire situation in which Watney finds himself loses any dramatic impact: after a few instances of facing a difficult or life-threatening challenge, going to sleep and then waking up with a brilliant solution, my interest hit rock bottom and never resurfaced again.  And there’s one question that kept running through my mind as I read the details of the science Watney employs to ensure his survival: he states that he’s leaving a recording, in the case of his death, for those who will come with the next mission to Mars, so… what’s the need for all those A-to-B-to-C painstaking explanations?  He knows that scientists like him will be able to understand implicitly what he did, and will not need to be told the hows and whys of the engineering and chemical processes he’s employing.  Watney, or rather the author, is therefore speaking to and for the scientifically uninformed audience, breaking the fourth wall so to speak. And in my opinion breaking the “magic” of the story.

This happens again when the focus is shifted to Earth, where after some time the satellite images sent back from Mars make it clear Watney is alive: as everyone works feverishly to try and re-establish communications and mount a rescue expedition, the technical discussions are clearly tailored for the layman’s understanding, through stilted, phony dialogues that are just a vehicle for more exposition. It’s clear that the author either knows these matters intimately or has researched them thoroughly, but for me they completely smother any characterization or story development: if I wanted to learn the most minute details about these subjects I would have tuned in on the Discovery Channel, not looked for them in a work of fiction.

And last but not least: where is Mars?  Does ever Watney raise his eyes and look at the terrain, scan the horizon?  Granted, the place is bleak and desolated but still, at least judging from the pictures sent by the unmanned probes launched over time, it does possess a kind of savage beauty that should have merited a mention or two. It’s something I would have expected, given the novel’s premises, but once more I was disappointed.

The Martian might probably work better in the movie adaptation: if the script leaves out Watney’s teenager-style interjections and poor-taste jokes, the too-frequent mentions of the quality and quantity of his excreta (important as they are to his survival),  and the long, Ikea-manual-style explanations of such survival techniques, it will have a chance of describing a gripping story, or to offer some necessary humor in a form that I might find more acceptable. I’m sorry to report that the book did nothing of the kind for me, so I gave in to disappointment and gave up the struggle about a third of the way in.

My Rating:


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Posted on October 2, 2015, in Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I loved this book. I’m sorry to hear you didn’t have the same experience! But no book is for everyone, and I’ve said so many times in my reviews that humor is so particular and a personal thing for everyone. A couple other people I know who couldn’t get into this book also cited Watney’s immature and lame jokes, and indeed he can be a bit much so I can understand where you’re coming from!

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    • Thanks. It’s always disconcerting to find oneself on… the other side of the river, so to speak, especially when such a huge slice of the readership loved a given book.
      But in this case I could not “click” with it, no matter how hard I tried. From the first reviews I’ve seen online I can hold some hope about the movie. We’ll see…

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  2. My friend was reading it as well. I can’t remember if she finished it or not but she told me about the painstaking details about Mars. I had to share your review with her because I think she was coming to the same conclusions as you did (She’s the one who recommended the MaddAddam series to me).

    Did you know this book was self published on Amazon before it got noticed? I read that the author is an engineer. I wonder if the movie addresses some of the things you note as problematic for you.

    I remember when I read The Color Purple. I was very taken with it until Celie’s sister Nettie (Celie being the MC) goes to Africa. Then it’s pages and pages and pages about Africa and it is BORING. I guess sometimes an author’s interests overtake the characters on the page.

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    • The movie reviews are very positive, even though this is not quite encouraging for me, considering that the book reviews were as well… However today I found this one:
      http://www.wired.com/2015/10/martian-books-movies/
      where the poster seems to share my views about the book, and he’s positive about the movie so… hope keeps me going 😉

      I agree about the “dangers” of an author delving too deeply in their interests, to the detriment (IMHO) of the story itself.
      Thanks for stopping by! (((wave)))

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  3. It’s a shame you didn’t enjoy it more, but sometimes that flood of praise can create expectations no read will ever compete with. I was fortunate in that I read an ARC of his before it hit the public’s radar, when it was still just a quiet indie sensation, and thoroughly enjoyed it. You’re right, the narrative does ring a bit false in how things are explained for the reader, but the the story itself and the character of Mark were enough for me to look past that.

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    • True, the hype about a book (or a movie) can be its own worst enemy.
      Still, I believe this is more a book for readers who enjoy their science in huge and detailed doses 🙂 while I prefer a light sprinkling, just enough to make me understand background information.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  4. I do want to read this eventually but usually the hype drives me away! And humour is so subjective and definitely has both a personal and a cultural divide. I much prefer a dryer sense of humour than overtly ‘laddish’ jokes.

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