The Martian

The Martian by Andy Weir

The MartianImagine writing a book. Then imagine shopping it around to publishers and no one takes your bait. So, you decide to self-publish. People start reading and talking and loving your book. It gets legs. Then Random House wants a piece of it, and so does Hollywood. In one week, you sign deals with one of the world’s largest publishing houses and Matt Damon will star in the movie version of your book. Your little book that no one originally wanted. That’s the story of Andy Weir. Software Developer by day turned publishing superstar overnight. Below is our story of his breakout success, The Martian.

Lara: So, I am going to admit that this book was kind of on my radar, because of all the buzz and hoopla, but then I heard about all the science and Mars, and maybe even aliens, and I lost interest. Then one of my dear friends, who only reads two books a year based on recommendations I give her, said I had to read it. Ugh. I do try to read at least one book that falls outside of my comfort zone each year. I figured this fit the bill.

Jennifer: Well, this book sounded pretty interesting to me, but the big push was that one of MY friends, who typically loves what I love, loved this one. So, we read it.

Dear friends. Oh, dear friends. Jackie. You. I’m talking to you. I didn’t like it. Oh, how I didn’t like it. This guy, Andy Weir, no doubt a smart science guy—and I’m married to a smart science guy—got very, very lucky. He wrote this awful book and, yes, it got legs. Lara, you tell us what it’s about.

Lara: It’s a great premise. Mark Watney, a Botanist and Mechanical Engineer, is one of the crew members of the Mars Ares 3 mission. After something goes wrong, Watney is presumed dead and the Ares crew is en route back to earth.

The only problem: Watney is alive.

Okay, there are more problems. The next mission to Mars isn’t scheduled for another four years. No one knows he’s alive. He doesn’t have enough food to live that long. Our Martian embarks on the “Mark Watney doesn’t die project.”

Glimmers of hope arise when Mindy Park, an Orbital Engineer with NASA’s Strat Conn team, notices Watney in her work observing Mars. After reporting this news to Dr. Venkat Kapoor, the Mars Mission Director, who in turn takes it to NASA Director Teddy Sanders, the race to save Watney becomes a political firestorm and national obsession. The book is told in alternating chapters of Watney’s space logs, conversations at NASA headquarters, and news briefings.

Jennifer: Well, problem number one. It takes a while for NASA to get involved. For quite a long time, we’re just with Mark. And it’s B-O-R-I-N-G. Problem number two. Enter NASA. It’s still B-O-R-I-N-G. From what I understand, the author went to great lengths to make this book as scientifically accurate as possible—relatively speaking, of course. But there are passages and passages of writing about how to preserve air and how to grow potatoes, and what to do with spacesuits. And I’m, all, like, neat. For about ten minutes.

Lara: I thought some of the potato-growing was interesting. And how he was trapped with only disco music and Seventies TV episodes left behind by his former crew mates. The science-y stuff got to be too much. And I question if everyone who read this book read every line of all the science-y stuff. It’s smart stuff. I think it’s too smart for many. Certainly me.

Jennifer: Actually, this reminds me of this one semester, way back when. I was a Teaching Assistant and I taught Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” (the story, not the book). I was rattling on about how his use of concrete detail had the effect of showing, rather than telling. All the rookie TA stuff. And then this one student turned in this rip-off story the following week about life in the navy, and he loaded it with details about ships and measurements and the like—and the story was awful—and it was probably entirely my fault, but here we are: Weir has written this “scientifically accurate” story about the fantastical, but it’s dull.

Then, of course, there’s the issue of language. Show me one lovely passage of prose, Lara. Just one.

Lara: I wouldn’t describe his prose as lovely. But he’s got a great opener that grabs you:

“I’m pretty much fucked.”

Jennifer: This is something lots of newbies think is fun and exciting to do: begin a story with the f-word. Allow me to write another great opener: Fuck me. I’m stuck on Mars. They’ve left without me.

Lara: But this isn’t your book. You can open your own book however you want. There’s a number of chuckle-worthy moments, like when he has to supplement the potato-growing experiment with his own waste for fertilizer.

“My asshole is doing as much to keep me alive as my brain.”

When NASA is able to communicate with him:

“Now that NASA can talk to me, they won’t shut up.”

And about the free-time. What had to be an unbearable amount of free-time.

“You may be wondering what else I do with my free time. I spend a lot of it sitting around on my lazy ass watching TV. But so do you, so don’t judge.”

Jennifer: The guy is deep.

I know you think I don’t love it because it’s not literary enough for me. I’m going to deny this. I am, though, going to point to the protagonist, who is entirely too glib about his plight. As the lone survivor, stuck on Mars (I was totally hoping for an alien, by the way), for years—years, folks—this guy was way too okay. In one passage, Mark—our always upbeat man—says,

“I don’t even know what to say. This was an insane plan and somehow it worked! I’m going to be talking to someone again. I spent three months as the loneliest man in history and it’s finally over.”

In the margins, I must’ve gotten bitter, because I wrote, “I’ve seen lonelier.” In other places, when Mark is offering his persistent good humor, I wrote, “I like this, but I don’t buy it.” I don’t buy Mark. And the premise of surviving such loneliness is the interesting thing here; it’s utterly untouched by Weir.

Lara: Here’s the thing. The book is fantasy. Not in the genre way. It’s not intended, nor does it ever claim, to be deep. But you can tell it will translate well to the big screen. To have Weir go into the loneliness would be too heavy for the book. But I agree with you. He was too flippant. And while I am sure the astronaut profile includes someone who can handle significant adversity while maintaining a level head, his perkiness was unrealistic and off-putting.

Actually, some of my favorite parts of the book involved Mitch Henderson, the Ares 3 Flight Director, who bucks protocol and political correctness in order to save Watley. And, of course, Annie Montrose, the salty tongued, PR head for NASA. The dialogue Weir wrote for each of them will easily translate to the screen.

At the end of the day, I liked The Martian. I didn’t love it. I think the movie might be better.

What’s Next!

We had planned to review Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, but Lara couldn’t do it. It felt to her like there’s too much scandal around the publishing of this book. It kind of breaks her heart. So, check back next month when we talk about a couple of books by self-proclaimed human guinea pig, A.J. Jacobs, specifically, The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically. 

Happy reading, Snotties!


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