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“Like a Haynes Manual without the pictures”
on 9 August 2015
Maybe it’s just as well that this book is being given the Hollywood treatment because it reads like the novelisation of a movie that’s already been released. Weir provides an abundance of numbers and technical know-how, but no real sense of place. It’s as if he’s assuming that his readers already have the movie fully-formed in their heads. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of well-researched detail to add authenticity, but Weir piles it on so relentlessly that the book starts to feel like a Haynes Manual without the pictures. And it’s not as if the concept of Mars as an actual place you can walk around and explore exists entirely in the imagination. NASA’s intrepid rovers have been faithfully exploring the red planet for the last decade, recording everything from dust devils to Martian sunsets (which are blue and starkly beautiful).
Another problem is the character of Mark Watney. No one likes a protagonist who wallows in self-pity, but a little more introspection and a little less wisecracking would have gone a long way towards making him easier to relate to. Instead, when he's not problem-solving he spends his downtime listening to music and watching old TV shows. Watney’s childish humour (encompassing “jokes” about boobs and gay space probes) and sheer lack of curiosity both in himself and his surroundings brings to mind an unfortunate comparison with the film "Beavis and Butthead do America" in which the titular duo studiously ignore America’s most breathtaking landmarks in favour of road-signs that contain accidental innuendos. If Beavis and Butthead ever “do” Mars … actually, scratch that; there’s only one planet they’d do and it begins with a U.
Meanwhile one crisis follows another and Watney deals with them all in his incessantly cheery way. He copes so well with adversity that you get the sense he’s thriving on it. Indeed, you’d be forgiven for wondering if the most terrifying crisis would be for nothing to happen to him, for his music to fall silent and his TV to go dead, forcing him to confront the psychological reality of being completely alone on a hostile planet. Here too there’s a precedent which Weir could have drawn on if he’d been so inclined. The Apollo Command Module pilots spent many hours alone and periodically isolated from civilisation while their crewmates explored the lunar surface. And yet, despite coming from backgrounds not known for literary eloquence, they were able to describe their experience in language rather more profound than “Yay Earthrise!” or “Boo! Solitude sucks!” The constant f-bombs don’t help either. There’s nothing wrong with expletives per se, but in Watney’s case they feel forced and awkward, like the class nerd trying to hang tough with the cool kids.
None of this would matter much if it weren’t for the hyperbolic levels of praise this book’s been generating on Amazon and elsewhere. It’s even being held up as the definitive example of how to write hard science-fiction, which seems to me to be setting the bar depressingly low. Why can’t a sci-fi novel be thrilling, scientifically accurate and literary in its ambitions?
The Martian is not without its strengths, chief of which is a plausible narrative that doesn’t fudge the laws of physics, but it could have been so much more. There was an opportunity here to write a great sci-fi survival novel that transcends its genre and tells us something about ourselves in the process. Instead we’re left waiting to see if Matt Damon can make the The Martian seem, well, a little more human.