Some Thoughts on Andy Weir’s The Martian
I have read a lot of depressing stuff recently. Put it down to my state of mind or the time of the year or whatever. I read Twilight of the Idols, and you know Nietzsche, always a laugh riot. Then I finished The Book of Disquiet, which I’d been reading on and off all year. Then I finished Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, which I didn’t understand in the slightest.
So it was time for something lighter, something nicer, something that I knew had a happy ending. I found a copy of The Martian in a charity shop for 50p, and a couple of days later I picked it up and finished it in one sitting. Something nicer and lighter? The guy is in mortal danger for literally years. But I’ve seen the film, so… happy ending!
It didn’t take me long to realise that The Martian is a masterpiece of tone. In a sense, SF doesn’t get harder than this. It’s all based on current plans and real science*. It is the definition of “this could *really* happen”. And it’s so damn accessible, just because of Watney’s voice. He’s a science teacher anybody would be thrilled to have and nothing is boring when it’s said in his voice.
I mean, here’s an example of what I mean when I say tone helps carry this novel. Moby-Dick is a masterpiece. An American classic. But most modern readers have a complaint, and that complaint is, “Did he really have to spend all that time explaining how rope is made?” A good chunk of The Martian is a guy growing potatoes and telling you about it. How interesting will most people find that, really? Sure, the stakes are high and it’s never been done (on Mars) before, but you go on to realise just how quotidian “never been done on Mars before” is. It’s the way Watney explains it that makes it interesting, his energy and enthusiasm, his sense of humour. You learn that part of the reason he got picked to go to Mars is the personality he has, and it beams on every page. You can’t help but like Mark Watney.
You get to know Watney pretty well before the narrative shifts to NASA as they slowly realise he is still alive on Mars. This is clever on Weir’s part; the drama of surviving on Mars is naturally the selling point of the novel, and it would have been very easy to tell the whole story through Watney’s mission logs, but breaking up the pace and getting us out of Watney’s head for a bit does wonders for the pace of the narrative. Watney has such a strong voice that it would be difficult to believably modulate it to add some emotional variety, and without the change in perspective the novel would run the danger of every page being like the last part of a Sherlock Holmes story; the bit where Sherlock tells you how brilliant he is. Sure, it’s exciting and satisfying, but it’d wear thin. Slowing the pace down occasionally, and foreshadowing some of Watney’s actions, stops the novel from burning up on reentry.
The changes in perspective also afford Weir the opportunity to work in a couple of subplots that give the story a sense of scale and help cement this novel as one filled with optimism in a way that doesn’t cause any knowing sighs. I mean, it is SF right? What’s more unimaginable? A future in which a man colonises Mars? Or a future in which a glacial bureaucracy can cooperate internationally with other glacial bureaucracies to save one man’s life? Both sound impossible, and yet both happen. It’s a bit techno-utopian, but at least its techno-utopian in a concrete way, and it acknowledges that this kind of thing can’t come about without teamwork, individual brilliance, iron will, massive resources, and patience. Like I said, I was in the mood for an uplifting read, and I got it.
You’d think that with the world looking more and more hopeless every day, an SF story set so close to us would be pretty damn bleak, and you’d think all the stories that are further removed would find more space for some kind of hope. And yet, we cannot imagine a future that looks good without puking, sneering, or wondering who’s getting the short end. Meanwhile, The Martian very much plays by the rules we work under right now, and using those rules manages to tell a story that is genuinely wholesome and fulfilling. I will crave this kind of thing going forwards, and fear I won’t find much of it.
*N.B. When I talk about the science being believable, I mean that it looks believable to me, someone with a (very) rudimentary education in the sciences. I have a B.A., you know? It didn’t break my suspension of disbelief, and that’s what counts.