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[personal profile] mtvessel
Aug 2015
The Martian - Andy Weir - Del Rey, 2014

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This book has now become a hugely popular film, but in 2011 Weir had to self-publish it because no agent would touch it. In hindsight this seems weird - it is competently written and has an incredibly engaging lead character, a suspenseful plot and an interesting and well-researched setting. I can sort of see what the publishers had against it, because it breaks pretty much every rule in the author's manual. Which of course is what makes it great.

The plot is very simply summarised - an astronaut called Mark Watney is marooned on Mars after a freak accident and must survive on the planet's surface until NASA can figure out a way to get him back - and I can imagine that "Robinson Crusoe in Space" was the one-line pitch for the movie. But this ignores two important features. Firstly, the lovingly detailed evocation of the Martian landscape and the technology and engineering used. There is no SF hand-waving - all the technology described exists today and the problems that Watney faces and the solutions that he comes up with feel plausible and real. Apart from the glossed-over issue of cosmic rays, there was very little that set off my nonsensical science alarm, and I really enjoyed the way in which each problem and disaster that Watney faces develops out of the solution to the last.

Secondly, there is the character of Watney himself. Not only is he smart and practical, he is also cheerful and jokey, and remains so even when life-threatening incidents happen. This might seem unlikely, but it is also logical. NASA screens its astronauts extremely carefully and would not send up someone who was likely to cave in from depression when things got difficult. His never-say-die attitude and humour are qualities that make him a particularly engaging protagonist - necessary when most of the novel is told through his voice.

What Watney doesn't have - and what must have stuck in the craws of the literary agents - is a back-story. I was fully expecting a tearful sub-plot involving a girfriend and/or family, but Watney is unattached and his parents barely get a mention. When you think about it, this is revolutionary. Pretty much any how-to-write book will tell you that a protagonist needs to be given a strong personal incentive to do the plot, but Weir realised, quite rightly, that staying alive was quite motivation enough. That said, I did find Watney's lack of a partner slightly troubling, with its implication that for all his charm, humour and thoughtfulness, he can't get a girlfriend because he is such a nerd.

There are a few other flaws which a more professional or experienced writer might have avoided. The narrative veers jarringly into third person when Weir needs to explain why a particular problem occurred and when he needs to cover events back on earth. In fact the NASA sections are the only real weaknesses in the book, with the most biggest implausibility being its actions immediately after the accident. And while I really liked the basic human decency evinced by space agency and government officials as they pull together to try to get Watney home, the lack of a cynical voice carping about the cost seemed a little pollyanna-ish.

But none of these really matter. The descriptions of the Martian environment and the ingenuity of the plotting show the passion and focus with which the author approached his story. This book was written with love for science, space, and the best aspects of human nature, and that makes it a great read.

Date: 2016-04-14 07:49 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
This also reminds me of "Welcome to Mars!" (1967) by James Blish. Although it suffers from gender stereotyping, in some ways it's less sexist than "The Martian", because there IS a major female character (and she's quite good, for 1967).


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