“Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.”
“’Watney is our botanist and engineer. And don’t talk about him in the past tense.’
‘Engineer? Like Scotty?’
‘Kind of,’ Beck said. ‘He fixes stuff.’
‘I bet that’s coming in handy now.’
‘Yeah, no shit.’”
This book could have had another title: “How to Grow Potatoes on Mars”…
SF boasts a range of recurring images that are symbolical of the major concerns and underlying its angst. Are the most familiar and iconic of these images the alien, the futuristic world, the spaceship, the IA machine? I think not. The image that I most associate with SF is “being stranded on an alien planet”. That’s for me quintessential SF. Does “The Martian” belong to this category? Yes. Is it good SF? No. Why? Read on.
Top-notch SF gains power from their characteristic of both revealing knowledge and withholding it at the same time, i.e., they’re familiar, while at the same time they remain estranged (see links below) from us in some other important aspect. Take the “Being stranded on an alien planet” image. The “artifacts” of this image in terms of putting it on the page are numerous. It’s supposed to operate by understandable mechanical and electronic principles, as well as Biology, Physics, etc. This image derives from both mythological and technological themes, i.e., there’s room in the spaceship image for Icarus… As a long time SF devotee, I’ve come to regard SF as having odd-ball bifurcated ramifications, drawing at the same time on myth and modern technology.
Why did they make a movie out of it? Was it because of the above-average character development (The Mark Watney that emerged at the end of the story was not that much different than the character at the outset. No depression? No lethargy? He’s a 24/7 human dynamo!)? Was it because of the atrocious writing (at times I thought I was reading SF from the 30s…)? Was it the purely engineering aspects? Was the story improved by all the back-of-the-envelope calculations, the physics, orbital mechanics, or somesuch? I’m not sure. The whole shebang felt gimmicky to me. Incidentally. What’s with the “pirate-ninja” as a unit of measurement? As an engineer myself, I believe this is utter nonsense. Credibility-wise is plain stupid. The rate of energy used over time is power, and we already have units for that: watts. Duh!
If I were to be candid, I’d say this a pleasant and inoffensive entertainment, and in the traditional words, it kept me turning pages. Weir must improve on his ability at handling characters. There are moments of utter glibness. This an inferior coffee-table production, not that illuminating, but fun nonetheless. Buy it as a present, not as textbook on Physics and Chemistry.
Warning. Rant follows.
If I were to be mean, which I won’t, I’d say this book is probably one of the lamest, most mediocre SF books ever written. Competing with it is another famous example of bad SF: “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie. If I were some sort of soap-opera brain damaged victim who microwaved plastic and drank diet soda, maybe this book would be for me. Someone should tell Weir that foisting such a horrible and puerile abortion on the public and call it SF is a disservice to that same SF.
NB: The movie HAS to be better than this (or maybe not). There’s still hope. Ridley Scott is directing it… I'm curious to know how he’ll will make the transition of what is mostly Watney's thoughts into some kind of narration.
NB2: Examples of relatively recent good SF: “The Adjacent” by Christopher Priest, “Academic Exercises” by K. J. Parker (aka Tom Holt), “The Folding Knife” by K. J. Parker, “Wolves” by Simon Ings, “After the Apocalypse” by Maureen F. McHugh, “China Mountain Zhang” by Maureen F. McHugh, “The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself” by Ian Sales, “Adrift on the Sea of Rains” by Ian Sales.
Rating this novel was a pain in the neck. Let me see:
5 stars for everything that was behind the book’s conception: space travel, orbital dynamics, relativistic physics, astronomy, and software engineering (”they want me to launch ‘hexedit’ on the rover’s computer, then open the file /usr/lib/habcomm.so, scroll until the index reading on the left of the screen is 2AAE5, then replace the bytes there with a 141-byte sequence NASA will send in the next message. Fair enough.”) Working out all the math and physics for Mark’s problems and solutions must have been fun.
0 stars for execution (not to put too fine a point on it, terrible).
Average = 2.5 stars. And that’s that, folks.
SF = Speculative Fiction.