Andy Weir’s The Martian was the hottest science fiction book to hit the shelves in 2014. There was a resurgence of interest in the novel when the film came out. I finally got around to reading it this summer. I’d heard many a great thing about it.
The Description from Goodreads
Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.
Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.
After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.
Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.
But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills — and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit — he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?
My Opinion of The Martian? Meh.
Disclosure: I did not finish this book.
I got halfway through The Martian, almost to the page, and it wasn’t grabbing me. The main character, the crew, the folks back on earth–I didn’t feel invested in any of them. So, I evaluated reasons why and moved on.
Reading half the book gave me enough of a picture for this review, I think.
Andy Weir’s writing is solid from a nuts and bolts perspective. Nothing wrong with his craft, per say. Had I read to the end, it’s possible my opinion might have changed. Maybe The Martian morphed into something spectacular five pages away from where I stopped. Lots of folks love this book. Love with a big fat capitol “L”.
As an individual reader (n=1 for the scientists), I reached a point where I thought to myself, “Eh, I kind of don’t care anymore.”
And that’s telling.
Where the Book Failed Me:
1) Lack of Tension
There are two things everyone seems to gush about with this book: the “voice” and the science, and there was plenty of both, but neither were enough to keep me going.
By the halfway point of The Martian, I was looking around going, “So, I have a clear picture of the problem, but has anyone scene the story? It should have showed up by now. Should we call somebody?”
I mean, yes, there was an inciting incident and (I guess) some rising action, but here’s the thing. Rising action is not always synonymous with rising tension. Their relationship is closely correlative but not causal.
Tension is what attacks our brains. Tension hooks us into a story and makes us want to know what happens next. In The Martian, the MC–Mark Watney–faces one problem after another after another as he fights to survive on Mars. And yet I wasn’t chewing my fingernails worrying about the consequences.
I think I first heard of the storytelling concept of “Yes-but, No-and” from Mary Robinette Kowal during a discussion on the podcast Writing Excuses. The idea goes like this.
- A character faces an obstacle to achieving their goals. I’ll apply it to this book. Mark Watney’s goal is surviving long enough to get rescued. The challenge is… there were a bazillion to choose from in this book.
- Does the character overcome the challenge? If Andy Weir’s goal was to build tension, then…
- If the answer is yes, it should take the form of Yes-but now Mark’s created another, bigger problem. Note bigger in that description, not different.
- If the answer is no, it should take the form of No-and now Mark’s chances of surviving are less than before.
Andy Weir throws challenge after challenge at his main character, but he does so in a consistent “Yes-and” pattern. See the difference? Yes-and manifests like this: Mark Watney faces a problem that will kill him. He solves it. A different problem pops up that also might kill him. He solves it. Repeat. They aren’t building off one another, amplifying in magnitude. For all the science in The Martian, the story was (for me) kind of boring.
Quick aside: even for me–a science-loving, science-teaching, science geek–there was just too much science. IMO: It would have been a stronger story had Andy Weir cut out about half the step-by-step scientific explanations and replaced them with moments of emotional vulnerability on the part of the characters.
2) Emotional Disconnect with the MC
I love me some action, but you’ve gotta connect me to the character on an emotional level, and do so as quickly as possible, if you want to hook me into the story. Weir didn’t do that.
Weir chose to deliver the main character, Mark Watney, through a filter. In the form of log entries. When you read the book (and remember, I only read half of it, so this might not be true of the entire novel), you’re not seeing Mark, not even hearing him speak, certainly not hearing his thoughts. You’re reading what the character wrote in NASA log entries. Sort of like a semi-personal, but semi-official journal. For me, that threw up a hazmat-suit kind of barrier between me and the guy on the other side of the fictitious keyboard.
Now, this might be where people want to jump in and say, “Yes, but you’re wrong because the character is so snarky, and he swears a lot, and he makes jokes and stuff.”
Okay… but, did you ever find yourself tapping into Mark Watney’s panic? The absolutely agonizing, muscle-seizing, grays-your-vision-around-the-edges pain of his initial injury? The heart-exploding relief at getting back to the HAB after the first time he drove out of sight of it. Of the hollowing crush of loneliness he was caught by? Rage? Frustration? True, Hulk-smash frustration?
Yeah, he swore a lot and wrote flippant comments and cracked an Aquaman joke. Maybe a strong “voice” isn’t enough. It’s got to be welded to emotional interiority of the character. What few emotions we saw were… flat. I didn’t believe them.
Andy Weir was using a literary device. I get that. The emotional distance I felt might have been intentional. Maybe we don’t see much interiority because Mark Watney thought everything he wrote down was eventually going to be read and analyzed. He was holding back his deepest inner self. Wouldn’t blame him. Makes perfect sense.
I guess I’m not the type of reader who enjoys staying somewhat removed of characters’ emotions. There are literally hundreds of thousands of people who adored this book. Cheers to them, I say. For me, it missed the mark.
Do not, fellow writers, trouble your minds with the worry, “What if this story I’m writing is no good?” Easier said than done, I know. This is, perhaps, the biggest darkest deepest shadow looming over all writers. But, I just read a book loved dearly by a LOT of people and I didn’t love it. You’re never going to please everyone, no matter how great a book you write.
Maybe there could have been a different strategy for writing The Martian that would have pulled me in more effectively. Not really for me to say, I suppose.
Let me reiterate, however, this was a DNF book for me, so… take my thoughts with a big grain of salt.
Curious about my other book reviews?
Click here to read my review of Mackenzie Lee’s YA historical romance, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue.
In the meantime, thanks for stopping by. As always, happy writing (and reading) to you.
I did enjoy the movie, but I didn’t care for the book. I did manage to read the whole thing, though, which is more than I can say for Weir’s second novel. I gave up about halfway through.
Interesting take on The Martian. I absolutely loved the movie and was pretty into the book, but, like you, I found it a bit boring. I thought it was just because I’d seen the movie beforehand. What you are saying about the repetitiveness of the book makes sense though. Thanks for putting into words what I couldn’t. 🙂
I have yet to see the movie. I’ve heard mixed things about it, which shouldn’t surprise me. Movies are probably like books in that you can’t make one that everyone is going to like. Thanks for stopping by, and happy writing to you. 🙂
I never read the book, but I did enjoy the movie quite a bit. On the other hand, my wife fell asleep. I’d like to rewatch it one day–I do think my wife would like the ending.
Tossing It Out
I thoroughly enjoyed The Martian (book); I seem to remember including it in my list of books of the year (was that 2016?). But I sat down to watch the film and… turned it off. That didn’t get me at all. I can be quite geeky in my science of fiction, so maybe that’s what I enjoyed most.
Right? You’re not alone. As I said, there are folks who LOVE the book. Hence, my takeaway being that you just can’t ever write a book that everyone will love. Thanks for stopping by, Jem. 🙂