“Live Another Sol”: A Review of Andy Weir’s “The Martian”

The Martian

Review by Curtis Cole

One of the problems with contemporary science-fiction, especially those of a self-published nature, of which Weir’s original draft of the Martian constituted, is the tendency to write a screen-play instead of a novel; a Hollywood style movie, in other words, as opposed to a book. The difference being that the former is a shamelessly promoted product meant to be mass-consumed with abundance, like a Michael Bay film, while the latter is a self-aware entity brimming with philosophical poetics, a la William Faulkner. While it would be absurd to hold every piece of literature to such lofty standards as The Sound and the Fury, one must—at least—attempt to approach such a shining pedestal before blindness sets in.

Sad to say that Weir’s debut novel fails in that regard on all accounts.

Weir’s failures primarily concern character building and science. But first the plot.

Meet Mark Watney. He is one unlucky astronaut. You see, after nearly being skewered with an object during a Martian dust-storm, he loses consciousness. When he awakes he finds himself stranded on the famous “red planet” with nothing but a load of ‘planned obsolesce’ (re technology), some potatoes, and a whole lot of seventies media. Millions of miles from home and years before any rescue is likely to make planetfall, death seems certain.

Or at least death would seem certain if it was not for the technology—oh, the wondrous technology, which does not actually exist! Thank you, lord, for that fictional technology able to generate fuel, water, air and more from the simplest of means, it truly was a blessing… a deus ex machina blessing. Such gifts transcend technology though for, in addition to his slew of fancy, fictional gadgets, protagonist Watney has more resourcefulness than the entire Apollo 11 crew; problem? No problem! Just so happens there is a solution in the same chapter (convenient that). While such cleverness is not impossible, strictly speaking, it is incredibly unlikely, especially so considering his habitation. Then there is the potato farming… one would think that absurdly unlikely miracles saving spacemen wouldn’t extend to vegetables, but you would be wrong. For if Watney’s crop is anything to go by then he is the best potato farmer in the universe to be able to net a couple thousand pounds of the plant just from an original stock of several. In sum my beef amounts to the following: there is a fine line between “Ayah! He did it!” and “WTF? He did it!” More often than not Watney’s triumphs side toward the latter.

The penultimate issue, however, is that although the math supporting the science is accurate, it is not real science: it is but merely inventions on the author’s part. Although a level of make-believe is expected in any science-fiction novel, for a book which aspires to “Hard Sci-Fi” status, Watney’s technologies drain all the tension from the pages; between his resourcefulness and array of devices there is never a doubt that Watney will emerge on top. When reading this novel one will only ever experience the pseudo-drama of Hollywood, of ‘staying-tuned’ to only see what new challenge awaits and how it will be overcome. Not an iota of real tension exists.

A lack of tension does not always mean trouble, admittedly. However, in a survival tale penned as the futuristic equivalent of Robinson Crusoe, this is a major flaw; one which is not aided by the protagonist’s unreflective disposition. Although the narrative’s humor is amusing, one filled with pop culture references, the lackadaisical attitude of Watney contradicts the supposedly stress-filled environment. Loneliness, love, suicide, existential diatribes on the human condition would all be expected to be addressed within a novel concerning itself with a lone man’s struggle to survive on Mars… but no, throughout the entire tale Watney reads like the novel’s tone, that is, a conversation at the nerd’s table in a high-school cafeteria. No philosophy, no poetics, no rage or despondency at the universe, just endless jabs at disco (bad news if you’re a disco fan…).

Politically the story is one of liberal-humanism. One could say that it is a rehabilitation of governmental competency as shown through the overwhelming good within people to help one-another, despite bureaucracy and red-tape. Weir is clearly concerned with demonstrating the communal behavior of humanity to assist their fellow man/woman in times of need; visibly he is against right-wing sentiments, such as those expounded by Tea Parties and Randian Objectivists, which stress humanity’s ultimately selfish profit-centered “nature”. And yet in dismissing such reactionary critics Weir makes the mistake of legitimating the opposite extreme—liberal mythology of nation and culture.

Watney’s story is one of a working class patriot, an astronaut turned “trucker”, “farmer”, and “construction worker” who bleeds with the colors of his nation while parroting the cultural drivel leaking from what Althusser would have called “the ideological state apparatus” or what Adorno would have deemed “the culture industry”: the filling of a person’s “species potential” (to quote Marx) with unadulterated garbage meant to strip the individual of the ability to fulfill their highest possibility. This is something which is the common to the tragedy of capitalist “civilization” and which seems to be the proper outlook on critiquing Watney’s vapid personality. In effect, Watney is a kind of national allegory for the proletariat underneath false consciousness, albeit one who relishes their torment and manages—against all odds—to make the best of their deplorable situation.

Of course, at the end of the day, I cannot be too hard on Weir: after all, this is his first (published) novel. He still has a lot of growing to do as a writer. No author (or at least not many) is able to write their best at their earliest. And if I am to give credit where credit is due I can say that Weir has a talent for narrative: with the story told via (mostly) diary entries, yet supplemented by two supporting sub-plots (one all the way back on Earth and another on the Mars expedition ship), outright omniscient narration, and even a temporal flashback chronicling the ‘how’ of a disaster, Weir was a talent with constructing viable plot webs; one must remember that such narrative construction, along with his Hollywood-shadowing writing style, is what enabled the upcoming film adaptation (starring Matt Damon) to become a reality. Weir’s talent is merely obscured by his surface bubbles. Below the waters that are his potential more yet awaits to be seen.

The Martian: A Novel

Andy Weir

369 pages. Published by Broadway Books. $13.84 (Hardcover), $9.00 (Paperback), $5.99 (Kindle), $26.95 (Audible), $7.50 (MP3 CD)[1]. 2014.

[1] Prices were taken from Amazon.com and were accurate at the time of writing.

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