One thing that kind of annoys me about the broad spec fic field is how difficult it seems to move away from the continual discussion and debate about ‘genre’. Which books falls into what category? Who can claim allegiance to what? There are famous examples of this, like the ‘dispute’ between Ursula le Guin and Margaret Atwood about whether Atwood writes science fiction. And I don’t just mean the supposed distinction between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction, but also the hierarchies within spec fic that many people buy into.
And so I frustrated myself while reading Andy Weir’s The Martian because I couldn’t move away from genre. It’s a book that (as I recently learnt from fellow Fantastican David Henley’s chat on ABC a few nights ago) The Martian falls into what is termed ‘mundane sci fi’, a kind of hard sci fi that strictly adheres to the laws of physics and the development of technology as we now know them.
That is one of the most remarkable aspects of The Martian. Weir really did his homework. There’s an astounding amount of thought, calculation, and planning that went into this book. Mentions of contingencies that never come about are nevertheless fully factored into the plans of our intrepid astronaut, Mark Watney. Even things Watney didn’t think of, Weir has. So, when something goes catastrophically wrong, it’s almost always due to an error of calculation on Watney’s part and is thus explained in hindsight. This book is a realisation of the conditions on Mars that is so thorough it’s possible to ask yourself by the end why we haven’t been there already. Long story short, sci fi nerds who are in it for the science will probably love The Martian.
But though it's a pretty good read, its flaws are more than niggling. Firstly, the routine of ‘massive-problem-resolved-by-ingenious-solution’ becomes tired by about page 50, and that’s because there’s not much else going on in the book at that point. Every chapter features Watney explaining how he’s going survive the next challenge. Remember those maths tests? ‘If a train is travelling at 50km per hour…’ and so on. The Martian is like reading a series of those, only they’re on an epic, life-or-death scale involving serious amounts of maths and knowledge about botany, chemistry and all sorts of other stuff (though, for the record, Watney regularly informs the reader to ‘trust him’ on the maths, so don’t expect mathematical proofs). There’s nothing that can’t be resolved if clear-thinking scientific rationalism is applied to it. Don’t get me wrong: it is impressive. But after a while it becomes a distraction. Even tiresome.
That does bring me to my second major gripe with The Martian. Watney is great at solving problems, but there are certain problems that implausibly never seem to arise, namely problems with Watney.
As my friend Tom points out in his review, there’s no Wilson to talk to. If Watney experiences any psychological strain in facing almost-certain death every day while stranded alone on an entire dead planet for two years with nothing to do but think about whether he’ll survive (and beat up on disco music) – if this causes him any stress whatsoever, you’d be forgiven for missing it. Okay, he might hide it behind jokes, and occasionally he admits that he misses his old crew. Aside from that, Watney appears to be a problem-solving machine, replaceable with a wise-cracking robot. There’s not much depth to the guy. Which kind of kills what for me would be the core of the story - the human element. Man stranded on Mars is a great premise but real survival in that environment wouldn’t just be about resolving the hard science of it.
Having said all that, it’s worth reading. And given how well it did at box office there's probably a case to be made that it translated well to film.
But I kept coming back to the ‘issue’ of genre while I was reading and I wondered if anyone who didn't like sci fi would see anything to the book. It feels almost self-consciously designed for the mundane or hard sci fi audience. And while there’s nothing wrong with a writer pitching to a certain market, I can’t help but wonder if some of these gripes of mine might have been addressed if Weir hadn’t been so focused on sticking to certain tropes.
Which I suppose is no better than saying ‘It wasn’t my favourite cause I don’t like those kinds of books,’ again falling into the genre trap.
A version of this post was first published at Fantastica on 8 July 2015 in response to an earlier review by Thomas Wilson.