The Martian was self-published by Andy Weir back in 2011, and after gaining momentum on his website and, later, Amazon, it was picked up by a mainstream publisher and became the breakout Science Fiction mega success of 2014 (Ridley Scott’s movie adaptation starring Matt Damon is being filmed this very moment!).
This all happened to the bafflement of the SFF community, as, by almost any measure, The Martian is a terrible novel. It comprises all of the negative traits that non-SF readers stereotypically associate with the genre: it’s badly written, technical to the point of tedium, offers no psychological or emotional insight into its characters or the ways in which their situation changes them, and just generally has nothing to say about anything.
It would seem easy to accuse the Science Fiction blogosphere of a kind of literary hipsterism at this point: an SF novel finally breaks into the mainstream, and it’s charged with being the “wrong kind” of Science Fiction. There’s more than a little having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too about this objection to The Martian’s success, but to be honest it’s a position I kinda sympathise with: The Martian is a long way from the being the sort of novel I’d like to see “representing” the state of early 21st-century Science Fiction, a genre significantly more diverse, creative and human-centric than The Martian would lead you to believe. This jacket quote in particular seems like it was specifically deployed to troll hardcore fans of literary SF:
Don’t be put off thinking this is a sci-fi book – it’s so much more than that.
The premise is a good one: Mark Wahlberg… I mean “Watney”… is stranded on Mars after his crew have blasted back to Earth following a mission-aborting dust storm. Now he’s awaiting rescue, surviving on potatoes, disco music, his absurdly encyclopaedic knowledge of all of science, and more potatoes.
It’s an epistolary novel, made up of Watney’s daily mission logs (unfortunately my hopes that The Martian would develop into some kind of Clarissa in Space were soon dashed by the novel’s utter lack of self-awareness and irony. Darn shame). And while this epistolary structure carries all of the usual benefits of that form (short chapters that can generate a nice momentum, and an excuse to skip the action forwards over the boring bits), The Martian is bafflingly impersonal. The greater part of the novel consists of straight-forward physical descriptions of Watney fixing stuff “I moved here. I put this there. I screwed-in that” etc. There’s a bit towards the middle when it looks as though Watney is about to skirt the issue of his loneliness, but just like his trusty Martian rover, the novel deftly avoids any such difficult terrain in favour of the flatter, easier narrative landscape of scientific technocratic blah. It’s frustrating that the epistolary form, tailor-made to expose a character’s innermost thoughts and fears, is used in such a cold, soul-less manner.
Watney’s voice is the major problem with the novel. The a-to-b-to-c mechanisations of the plot are perfectly serviceable, and I’m confident that this will be a much better film than it is book, purely because cinema can get away with presenting a depthless sequence of improbable crises in a way that novels really can’t (that and The Martian belongs to a particular sub-genre of Hard Science Fiction that’s cinematically en vogue right now (think Moon, Gravity, Interstellar etc.), and which can probably get by on its visual spectacle sans any genuine emotional content).
The narration just did it for me. Watney’s voice is part physics textbook, part sarcastic teenage blogger. Ugly words like “really” and “got” are repeated ad nauseum:
So Houston got understandably nervous when we got whacked with 175kph winds. We all got in our flight suits and huddled
And very un-astronaut-like internet-speak peppers the narrative. Most irritating is the parenthetic “Yay me”, which is used so often as to become a refrain (and soon begins to feel like the writer congratulating himself on having regurgitated some especially technical piece of research).
Many reviewers have commented that it’s Watney’s wit and “personality” that make the novel, but I don’t see it. To me the ill-fitting interjections of teen-speak are just shallow; too-obvious attempts to create the illusion of personality.
There’s no examination of Watney’s emotional situation: fear, regret, wonder, loneliness are barely mentioned. The emotion that’s described in most detail is boredom which, I think, says a lot about Andy Weir’s imagination. I was hoping for some wilderness writing, for a sympathetic fallacy that described the surrounding Mars-scape in emotional terms and used the empty backdrop as a mirror for Watney’s lonliness, but nope: nada. Unless, of course, you consider the barrenness of the prose to be a stylistic reflection of the arid Martian sand dunes…er..
Things hit rock bottom when Watney starts explaining his own jokes:
‘Over the past few days, I’ve been happily making water. It’s been going swimmingly (see what I did there? “swimmingly”?)
Which juxtaposes awkwardly with all of the high-level science in the book. There are pages and pages and pages of this:
Every twenty hours, I’ll have 10 litres of CO2 thanks to the MAV fuel plant. I’ll vent it into the Hab via the highly scientific method of detaching the tank from the MAV landing struts, bringing it into the Hab, then opening the valve until its empty. The oxygenator will turn it into oxygen in its own time. Then I’ll release hydrazine very slowly over the iridium catalyst, to turn it into N2 and H2 […]
Which while impressive in a “look how much research I’ve done” kinda way, is only bearable in small doses. I have no objection whatsoever to Hard Science Fiction, but I prefer it when the aesthetic modus operandi isn’t to achieve a narrative style identical with that of undergraduate physics textbooks.
After 10, 20, 30 pages of the stuff, it all becomes so much white noise. If you want to be generous, you could probably argue that the enormous swathes of physics is a meta-narrative attempt to instil in the reader the same sensations of zen-like boredom being experienced by our stranded protagonist. If that was Andy Weir’s intention, then, bravo, I guess.
But is it even Science Fiction though?
One thing The Martian has encouraged me to do, though, is to start thinking, once again, about that age-old literary problematic of how to define Science Fiction. Because the niggling thought I kept having while reading it was that, whatever The Martian is; it isn’t Science Fiction.
I guess this comes full-circle to my earlier comments about literary hipsterism, and I hope the following doesn’t sound like a hand-wringing attempt to rescue Science Fiction’s critical reputation by claiming that the most scrutinized SF novel in years isn’t actually SF at all, because these are genuine thoughts I had while reading…
Like many SF fans on the critical left, I’ve always been enamoured of Darko Suvin’s definition of Science Fiction, which, while imperfect, remains incredibly fruitful:
A literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.
Key to genre fiction, for me, is this idea of estrangement and alterity. Yet despite being set almost entirely on Mars, The Martian manages to be one of the least estranging novels I’ve ever read. The language is prosaic, the narrator is aloof and the text never engages with the otherness of its setting. The rigorous devotion to realism, present-day technology and scientific verisimilitude cloys up the narrative: there’s no attempt at extrapolation, imagination or wonder, or to find meaning through the other.
Realist fiction attempts to echo the world by representing it as faithfully as possible (to monumental hubris, in my opinion), whereas SF speaks about the world by making it strange, and in doing so reveals and highlights deeper truths; Science Fiction is a literature of metaphor. The Martian makes no effort at metaphor, attempting to recreate experience as mundanely and accurately as possible, and in this regard has more in common with mimetic literary realism than Science Fiction. Nothing about the book is unfamiliar, and the constant internet speak, the paratextual assertions that all the technology is real, and the occasional chapters that feature CNN news reports about how Watney has become a celebrity back home make the whole thing so inescapably familiar. How can a book set on Mars feel so parochial?
The Martian fails as Science Fiction because rather than estranging the reader from their everyday context, all the book gives us is… the recognisable. Potatoes and disco music.