Review: The Martian

I suspect everyone in SFF has heard of Andy Weir’s The Martian by now: a self-publishing success story, it was picked up by Random House in 2013 after selling 35,000 e-copies on Amazon in three months and was made into a blockbuster film starring Matt Damon.

Civilian astronaut Mark Watney is inadvertently stranded on Mars when the mission he’s a part of is aborted in extreme weather. With communications down, and only enough food for a year, he must figure out how he can stay alive for long enough to be rescued by the next manned mission to Mars in four years.

The novel’s interest lies not in how Watney copes psychologically with his extreme isolation but rather in the science that keeps him alive; it follows him problem-solving the many obstacles big and small he encounters in his quest for survival in a uniquely hostile environment. Want to know how to make water from rocket fuel? The Martian‘s the book for you. Despite its occasionally didactic tendencies, though, it’s actually fairly entertaining on a first read, Watney’s calculations about the calorific value of potatoes leavened by his irreverent, upbeat narration. (There’s something of podcast Wolf-359‘s Communications Officer Eiffel about Watney, although Wolf-359 is much more intentional in the issues it’s exploring than The Martian.) The sheer difficulty of what Watney’s trying to do means there’s always another crisis around the corner, and we’re propelled along by the narrative momentum of those crises, wondering how he can survive this one. Watney’s first-person logs are interspersed with more traditional third-person omniscient narration describing NASA’s rescue efforts and their response to the media circus surrounding Watney’s stranding: the interpersonal drama of these sections offers a contrast to Watney’s science-heavy logs, giving storytelling scaffolding to his Robinson Crusoe-esque battle against an entire planet.

Entertaining and solidly constructed as it is, The Martian nevertheless feels…old-fashioned. Comparisons to Robinson Crusoe are no accident: at its core the novel is about a man pitching himself against the Other, a tradition going back to SF’s origins in colonial narratives about Victorian gentlemen exploring exotic lands full of monsters and barely-human savages. If there’s little psychology in The Martian there’s also no sense of wonder: no descriptions of awesome landscapes, no pause taken to acknowledge the unspeakably vast tracts of empty void that lie between us and the red planet. Mars, all 55 million square miles of it, is reduced to a problem to be solved, a series of obstacles to be overcome; the Other is to be rendered intelligible by the light of Western science. This colonising tendency is referred to in an email Watney gets from his alma mater the University of Chicago:

“They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially “colonized” it. So technically, I colonized Mars.

In your face, Neil Armstrong!”

Notably, Weir doesn’t acknowledge the fraught history of colonisation on Earth: for Watney, colonisation is cool, neat, a fun technicality.

None of this is to say that the novel is actively offensive. True, Watney’s irreverent attitude often blends into sexism and gender essentialism: he feels the need to insist that he’s not a “mummy’s boy” after reading an email from his mother fifty times; when someone at NASA admonishes him to watch his language because all his communication with them is made public, he immediately makes a boob joke. I can see how another reader might be put off by this – it’s completely unnecessary even in the context of Watney’s characterisation. But: there are women and people of colour on the NASA team trying to get Watney home; the commander of the aborted Mars mission is a woman who Watney has a lot of respect for. This isn’t a novel that has a problem acknowledging the humanity of women and people of colour, overall; it’s just that structurally it’s partaking of a tradition that is essentially colonialist, and failing to reckon with that colonialism. That failure, and the accompanying narrowness of focus, makes it a weaker book. As I said, it’s entertaining enough on a first go, and I actually found it quite helpful dealing with the beginning of lockdown earlier this year. But do I want to read it again? Nah.

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