The Martian. You may have heard of it. You may have heard of its unusual route to publication. You may also have heard that it's been made into a movie, staring Matt Damon, which is coming out this Friday. It's kind of a big deal.
Honestly, I really did not want to read this book. I'm suspicious of hype. I got burned on Ready Player One. I couldn't even make it through Gone Girl (which, in my defense, I accidentally purchased on audible because I mixed up the title with The Goldfinch). So when I started seeing The Martian at the bookstore, with that slick cover, sitting next to Ready Player One on the display table...well, to me that was a bad sign.
But, then I saw the trailer for the movie, and I'll admit, it looked pretty cool. I don't think there are enough science fiction movies being made, so I started to feel like maybe I should support it.
But if I was going to see the movie, then I wanted to read the book. I placed both physical and digital copies on hold at the library, but there must be an epic number of people on the waiting list, because I haven't gotten it after weeks of waiting. Finally, I caved last night and bought a copy for my kindle.
I should have trusted my instincts. This isn’t a good book.
My first warning sign was the babyish writing that starts on page one. Even if the book discusses science and engineering problems that are clearly targeted towards adults, the prose seems more appropriate for fourth or fifth graders. Weir tries to get away with it by framing the novel as an epistolary story, but I still don’t think it really works. The sentences are too uniformly easy. I almost wanted to read more tangents, more poorly organized paragraphs. That’s how real people write, especially scientists, who’ve never seen a run-on sentence they didn’t love.
And anyway, if we were actually reading an isolated astronaut’s journal, wouldn’t we hear something about his thoughts and feelings? Instead what we get is one continuous description of how to survive on Mars. We know nothing personal about the astronaut. He doesn’t even seem all that afraid. His emotional arc is a lot of “aww darn” and “a-ha, yay!” sorts of experiences. So if he’s not emotionally involved in his predicament, then why should I be?
Oh well, I shrugged it off and hoped the science would be interesting. And at first it was...when he was talking about a subject I know nothing about. I perked up when our hero discusses soil science (cause I’m a gardening nerd). That was interesting, but I fully admit, I know almost nothing technical about soil biochemistry. Then he got to the part about making water – and I just lost it.
Now Weir was talking about something I’m more familiar with: handling dangerous chemicals to do synthetic reactions. And it’s all bullshit. You can’t secure a rubber hose to a tank of hydrazine with a “thread.” When you open that valve, even if you do it very carefully as Weir repeatedly emphasizes, the pressure will just blow off this absurd fitting and spray the toxic, flammable stuff everywhere. But no, our hero “just” (that word comes up a lot in this book) slowly drips the hydrazine over the Iridium catalyst. Where did he get this catalyst by the way? Maybe he explained it, but the writing is so sloppy and ambiguous, it was a mess to figure out. I started to highlight all the sections I thought were completely unrealistic takes on how an astronaut would jerry-rig a chemical reactor to make water (transferring liquids and gases in air and adding controlled amounts of energy is a complicated science), and I had to stop myself.
Nit-picking the science in a science fiction story is a great way to ruin all the fun. Sometimes, you just have to let go of your disbelief so you can enjoy the story.
But that’s the problem, there is no story. There’s no character. The writing is practically in bullet-point format. It’s all tell, no show. There’s nothing except this half-cocked attempt to discuss science and engineering solutions for survival on another planet. If the science is questionable, then what left is there to enjoy?
I’m going to finish this book, because it’s short and an easy read, and I’ll bet I enjoy the rest of the science that I don’t know enough about to get annoyed with (a soil chemist though, I don't know, they might hate that part). And I’m probably going to see the movie, because a movie can show us these ideas without getting lost in the sometimes-tedious explanations.
But it’s not great science fiction and please don’t call it that.
Writing, editing, and doing science when I feel like it. Just a book without a genre.