Not 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.