Mars is flat

As I’ve decided this is the year to jump on bandwagons and go for popular, current books, I decided to read the current hit The Martian after seeing the film a few months ago (if you don’t agree with my decision to read the book until after seeing the film then see my thoughts on that here).

We’ve all heard the fascinating backstory behind the release of this work from science geek Andy Weir, who self-published his book as a series after being rejected too many times by mainstream publishers, only to have it snapped up as it became popular. Now I’m going to risk being unpopular as I side with the publishers on this one, and understand why they were not keen to take up this book originally.

So while you guys go get your pitchforks ready, I’ll start with the positives of the book as a whole. Obviously I have to start with the insane amount of research that it must have taken Weir to produce such a story. As someone who scraped a C/B in the sciences at GCSE I’m afraid a lot of the kilowatt per hour, G-forced, pressurised details are somewhat wasted on me. But my limited knowledge tells me, and reliable sources confirm (including my Kerbal playing hubby) that this stuff is near enough 100% accurate, which is very impressive for a story featuring someone living on Mars for over a year, something no layperson would really know too much about. Although I found my eyes irresistibly skipping past some of the finer detail (more about this later) I couldn’t help but be impressed by it all. Even if one doesn’t understand it point-by-point, the book is still richer for it having been there. There are no parts that just say ‘that thing that just happened – it’s because of Science, don’t worry too much about it’ which only serves to explain away plot holes and infuriate the more intelligent readers.

Secondly, again the overall premise of the book is outstanding. You know me, I can forgive a multitude of sins in a book if I love the idea of it enough, and this is almost the case here. With space exploration just about cool again with the idea of one-way trips to Mars in our lifetimes, the future we see in this book is tantalisingly close and people are naturally going to want to explore the possibilities of things going wrong. The only issue I had with the story as a whole was the fact that despite the constant commentary that we were saving Mark Watney’s life, and if this failed and that failed then he’d be doomed, I never really felt it. This may be down to the writing style (we’re getting closer and closer to pitchfork time here folks) or it may be just down to my millennial, want-it-now type mind-set, where ‘he’ll starve to death in 400 days’ really doesn’t seem like peril. Perhaps it’s the fact that I simply don’t grasp how far away Mars is, but isn’t that the case for most of us. And then surely, surely, (light those torches guys) isn’t that the job of the writer to impress that on us more effectively? It’s all very well for Mark to say constantly ‘I’m fucked’, but really if he has the say the words, then the situation isn’t set up well enough.

So, we’re here in the crux of the matter. All other positives aside, I didn’t think this book was very well written. There, I said it. It does feel like someone with a very scientific mind got this gem of an idea, and then wasn’t able to execute it very well due to limited artistic capability. Sure, there’s absolute textbook story arcs within the main story arc, every few hundred pages or so, or however often Weir calculated there should be some excitement, there’s a very well-planned mini catastrophe. One can almost see his blue prints for this story: main problem on page one, rescue on final page, another spanner in the works every time things seem too quiet. As I say, text book, straight out of ‘Fiction writing 101’. But when you have chapter after chapter of what feels like an instruction manual written out in first person: “First I cut the canvas, then I stitched it together again with resin, then I tested it by increasing the pressure” we have a few colourful comments by Mark thrown in, just to remind us he’s a real person that we should be caring about: “so I’m not going to be dying today – hooray!”. Unfortunately, a few repetitive observations about disco music, musings about Aquaman, and using exclamation points (so many exclamation points!) does not a well-rounded character make. There’s no real depth to Mark. There’s no realism to his fear or frustration that we can relate to. No pining for Earth, or his family or friends. He doesn’t seem to have any motivations or feelings, and the few humourous ‘humanising’ thoughts he does express seem tacked on. I completely understand it must be hard to convey a personality through diary entries alone, but there are plenty of other books that manage this just fine, Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones alone are some fictional examples. I think this book would have worked so much better as a collaboration between Weir, so that there is still the accurate science and NASA protocol up the yin-yang that makes this book so special and unique, and also a seasoned fiction author who could make his characters more 3-dimensional and sympathetic.

So I can completely understand the publishers’ misgivings about signing this book up. It would have been a gamble. Sure you have a great idea and some kick-ass science to back it up, but the execution is a little shaky. Luckily in these times where anyone can publish a book, Weir still managed to get the credit and audience he deserves. However, it just goes to show there’s still some room for traditional publishers nowadays, to give books the little polish they need to be fantastic all round, character development and all.

Edit: In light of the horrific events of Paris, I thought I’d highlight this lovely passage that I really liked. This comes towards the end when Mark was contemplating why the world was rooting for him, and why NASA spent billions to rescue him:

“But really, they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes , but it’s true. If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception.”

‘In every disaster, look for the helpers’ - paraphrased from Mr Rogers

More Reading
Newer// Read-along fun
comments powered by Disqus