While reading The Martian it struck me that this should have been a novella. The strength of this work is the impressive amount of compelling detail the author, Andy Weir, goes into regarding technical aspects of space exploration; and he goes to great lengths to describe what it would be like to try and do anything on Mars. It is extremely well-researched and for about fifty pages it is a hugely enjoyable read. But after a certain point, you get tired of reading what boils down to a smart-arse doing science experiments on Mars, and begin to think: what’s wrong with this guy?
Mark Watney, our eponymous Martian, for all his scientific expertise, never displays the basic human emotions that could enable the reader to relate to him as a person. There is no fear, let alone terror, in this book, and hardly any sense of loneliness of despondency. Watney’s response to his abysmal plight feels so alien to what we would expect someone in his situation to feel, that he ends up seeming like a ‘Martian’ in an entirely different sense than the way the title intends. He makes occasional flippant comments about missing family and, at the very end, there is an oblique reference to sexual frustration, after a year and a half on Mars; but generally speaking Mark Watney does not come across as a human.
In order to sustain a full-length novel, Weir draws in a host of characters in the guise of technical staff from NASA as well as Watney’s original crew who are making their way home after leaving him for dead. Again, the relationships, emotions and pressures that the characters experience are extremely shallow and one-dimensional. The story has an innate sense of gravitas and drama which is intrinsic to the subject matter, and the novel is not completely unsuccessful in conveying this to the reader. But the cliched cast of characters encountered here do not add much to the story.
It’s obvious that Weir’s interests and strengths as a writer lie more with the scientific aspect of the story than with character development. If the novel had been limited to 100 pages and dealt just with the scientific elements of the story–perhaps even excluding the Earthbound characters entirely–and had Watney experienced any of the kinds of emotions one would expect him to–this could have been a classic story. The basic elements are all here, and put me in mind of some of the works of authors like Cormac McCarthy or Jack London. The Mars setting provides the ultimate metaphor for man’s struggle to survive in a hostile and indifferent world. But any chance to explore this potential is lost in a miasma of self-referential irony and science boffin chic.
Nevertheless, the novel is not without its appeal, especially at the beginning, and it is at least refreshing to see a successful novel address aspects of science and technology. I debated what score to give it, finally deciding that a six would be a generous but fair score. Weir deserves our generosity as readers for the research and effort he put into this book. While it will never be regarded a success in literary terms it clearly has many ardent fans and has become a hugely successful movie, which should hopefully make up to Weir for our words of criticism.