As a general rule, space travel has never interested me. It’s nothing personal against outer space–even as a kid, it never captivated me. I was always more interested in history and foreign countries than the outer reaches of the galaxy.
Likewise, science fiction that is about outer space is rarely something I read. I prefer my science fiction dystopian.
Nevertheless, I have been curious about the popularity of both the book and film versions of The Martian and decided, in the name of broadening my horizons (aka doing my part to build a better world), to give them both a try.
Thoughts on the book:
I was pleasantly surprised by the book. I ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would, given my usual disinterest in the genre. However, I didn’t like it as much as I wanted to.
I think the book did a great job of taking an intriguing premise–an astronaut accidentally left behind on Mars–and turning it into a fast-paced, adventure-packed story. It was compelling, never boring, and held my attention throughout.
Author Andy Weir has also obviously done his homework and the book is full of all sorts of scientific details concerning surviving Mars and NASA operations. There was some minor alterations for the purpose of the story, but overall it received a lot of praise from people who know a lot more about outer space than I do for being such a realistic depiction.
Weir also does a good job of making these details accessible for readers who are not retired astronauts or rocket scientists. He does this primarily by having a large bulk of the book be logs from said stranded astronaut, Mark Watney. When you’re stranded on Mars by yourself, you tend to get a little lonely and have some spare time on your hands.
So, when he’s not rummaging through the books, music, and tv shows his comrades left behind, Watney spends a lot of time brainstorming and talking through his issues in the official logs. Meanwhile back on Earth, NASA is desperately searching for a way to bring him back. Overall, even if you are not a mechanical whiz yourself, it is usually easy to follow what is happening and get caught up in the action.
This all sounds pretty tense and grim–and the book certainly is intense–but it’s also surprisingly funny. Watney maintains a pretty good sense of humor about his situation, which is a big part of his log updates.
Though the pacing and plot side of the book were really well done, I was pretty disappointed in the character side of the book. Watney is amusing and is likable enough, but neither he nor any of the NASA people on the ground or even the rest of his crew really seemed like fleshed-out people to me.
The NASA people especially never seemed to have distinguishing personalities and were sometimes prone to a fictional affect that I find irritating–eccentric genius who behaves in a way no mortal does. (Maybe they were martians?!) I had a little easier time with the crew on his ship, but even then, their only distinguishing characteristics are pretty superficial, like questionable taste in music or having a crush on a coworker.
This problem was exacerbated by how all the characters had similar-sounding dialogue and all had the same sense of humor. The dialogue itself was often clunky and sounded unnatural.
A lot of the book also focuses on Watney’s MaGgyver-like abilities to engineer solutions to complex problems. That’s fun and quite interesting, but I am not a mechanical person. In fact, I have been outsmarted by calculator covers, so after awhile, I wanted more details on the human side of the mission, and that’s not Weir’s strong point as a writer. Watney never seems to change much during his ordeal. I didn’t find that very believable and would have liked a little more psychological insight for him and, well, all of them.
Another issue I had was the epistolary nature of the logs. I am broadening the definition of epistolary beyond a book comprised of letters to include any book that derives a lot of its narrative from documents. The frequent use of Watney’s logs makes this an epistolary novel.
Now, I love epistolary fiction. It’s actually my very favorite form of fiction. I’ve been obsessed with it since I was a teenager and read Dracula and a ton of other 19th century gothic fiction like Frankenstein and Sheridan Le Fanu’s work. The very roots of this “From Page to Screen” series on the blog was a paper I wrote in grad school in which I looked at how film adaptations and unauthorized book sequels of Dracula use epistolary formats to make these versions of the story seem authentic.
As a result, I am willing to admit that I, ahem, may have more neurotic hang-ups about epistolary fiction than your average reader. Epistolary fiction, by its very nature, is limited. It really irks me when writers use epistolary fiction but then try to remove these limits. Don’t just try to turn it into straightforward narrative. It’s a unique format. Work those limits! Use them to your advantage!
I found the epistolary aspects of the The Martian sometimes fell into this trap of trying to avoid the limits of the form and then becoming improbable in the process. I can forgive the information dump aspects of the logs since, again, Watney is bored and lonely and trying to preserve his story in the event something happens to him. I get that. If I were stuck on Mars, I’d probably do the same thing.
But I was still bewildered by how he’d conveniently recap everything for maximum audience understanding or take the time to quickly record a log in the middle of a life-threatening situation. I had initially envisioned his logs as video-recorded, so I was perplexed when I realized toward the end of the book that he was actually writing them in the middle of dangerous situations where survival is just a matter of seconds. If I’ve learned nothing from studying Dracula, it is that one does not sit down to write a 10-page diary entry about the day’s events while in the middle of a battle with vampires. (Not that it stopped Bram Stoker, but still.) I’m pretty sure a similar rule of thumb relates to documenting life and death struggles on Mars too.
With that all being said, I did like the book. As I said earlier, it’s a great blend of action and science, but I didn’t love it because I did think the human side of the story was a lot less developed than it could have been and the narrative structure had issues.
Follow the link below to the next page to read my thoughts about the movie.