Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Exploding on the Launch Pad: Andy Weir’s The Martian

The Martian is Andy Weir’s writing debut, marketed as “a truly remarkable thriller” and “an impossible-to-put-down suspense novel.” Like all dust jacket claims, these brandings are boilerplate, easily dismissed, and normally you’d have no reason to dispute them (or even think about them), regardless of the novel’s quality. But The Martian calls even these most basic descriptions into question, and what began in my mind as niggling doubts became full-bore distaste by story’s end. The premise – an astronaut named Mark Watney is stranded alone on a distant planet and must figure out a way to survive – is as old as the Martian hills, tracing its SF roots all the way back to Bradbury, and even Jules Verne before him. There’s no promise of supernatural or fantastic elements, because the book is “grounded in real, present-day science”. So with a tired conceit and an inauspicious focus on technical accuracy, the question is, what’s left to intrigue us? The answer, unfortunately, is: not much.

I was alternately bored, frustrated, and apathetic while reading The Martian, none of which are feelings I imagine Weir wanted to engender. Worse, I don’t think they are simply a result of personal subjectivity – I think the awful dialogue, clumsy story construction, and inane characterization will be obvious to any attentive reader. The focus of the novel is also its most glaring flaw by far: believability, or the utter lack thereof. Because the author has done his homework and presents us with many realistic space survival scenarios, we’re meant to buy into Mark Watney’s struggle. The problem is, I don’t believe that someone who talks and thinks like Watney would ever have been selected for a dangerous, expensive, and highly difficult mission to a distant planet. We’re told he’s the best botanist on Earth, and he does prove to be highly resourceful at growing food for himself, but what expert-level botanist talks like a frat boy? High academia has a way of smoothing out juvenile character traits like these, and when you’re ready to represent the best our planet has to offer in your field of study, you’re going to take it seriously. Watney doesn’t take anything seriously, and I don’t buy it for a second.

A scene from Mission to Mars (2000)
I find it impossible to believe that an astronaut stranded on Mars would treat his situation with the amount of humour that Watney does, and seemingly without effort. (Nevermind the fact that his sense of humour is puerile at best, and deeply unfunny at worst.) Presenting his story to us in the form of personal logs – which he is unsure anyone will ever read – is an excellent way to let us inside his head and tap into his most profound anxieties, but this opportunity passes Weir right by. Watney expresses no fear, no uncertainty, simply moving from one problem-solving setpiece to another. He is trapped, alone on an alien world, and we don’t get a single moment of philosophical reflection about it. Wouldn’t a situation like that play hell on the human mind? Shouldn’t he be more respectful of the fact that he’s in the most unique scientific position in human history, far surpassing the momentous achievements of his supposed “peers” like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin? Watney is able to establish contact with Earth far too early in the book, leaving no time for loneliness and despair to creep in, and no reason for us to sympathize. In 2000’s Mission to Mars, Don Cheadle’s character is stranded on the red planet for a year, and when the rescue crew finds him he’s a haunted, broken man. I understand that Watney’s sense of humour is probably meant to be read as a coping mechanism, but if that’s the case, we should see him battling with his own mind, straining to stay sane under deeply frightening circumstances like Cheadle’s character did (or, rather, failed to do). Instead he records his log with the same level of concern as if he were working on a particularly vexing bathroom renovation. There’s simply no drama or suspense, in what’s supposed to be a dramatic, suspenseful “thriller.” In this case, I think NASA actually should have sent a poet – at least it would have made for a more interesting read.

The characters back on Earth who endeavour to bring Watney back alive are a little better, in that they take the situation much more seriously than Watney does, but they’re susceptible to the same level of idiotic, poorly characterized dialogue. Would the Director of Mars Operations at NASA really say “I got, like, two hours of sleep last night”? (That’s a direct quote.) The amount to which Weir allows his own, uncharacterized, ungroomed voice to creep into the dialogue demonstrates the gross limitations of his writing style. This is Weir’s first novel and it shows; the dust jacket claims he’s been an engineer, physics enthusiast, and “space nerd” his whole adult life, and it’s clear that these passions do not translate into an aptitude for writing. A weekend warrior’s affinity for science and an NHL player’s sense of humour do not a novelist make, unfortunately. But that’s no reason for Weir to stop trying – if he works with a real writer to bring his impressive scientific knowledge to bear, we might experience a compelling SF narrative from him in the future. For now, I can’t recommend this novel except to the most fervent space enthusiast, who will likely be agitated by its lackadaisical tone anyway.

I wanted a compelling, tense, serious thriller in the vein of Apollo 13, and what I got can’t be described using any of those words. Unlike The Magicians, which had an engaging premise but failed in execution, or Dredd, which elevated trite material with superb staging, The Martian falls short of its goals in every aspect, from initial concept to finished product. Skip this amateur clunker and hope for better work from Weir in years to come.

–  Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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