The Martian by Andy Weir

Book CoverThe Martian by Andy Weir is one of those rare cases of indie success that’s turned into mainstream success. Weir wrote the book for fans of his personal website, and thought his book would appeal mostly to hardcore science nerds. When a reader suggested he put it up as an ebook on Amazon, it climbed up into the top ranking and ended up landing its author a traditional publishing deal. The print deal led to a movie directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon which will be released in November 2015.

The Martian is actually pretty good. I’m usually a little leery of self-published, digital-only books, but this was good quality (though I did read the ebook a while after it was published in print). Not only is it well-edited, but the plot moves along quickly and all the elements cohere very well. The major strength of The Martian is in its science background. Weir said that many of his readers were professionals in scientific fields and helped him with fact-checking (although Weir’s no slouch himself – he began working for Livermore National Laboratory while in high school).

The Martian follows the struggles of the charming and somewhat immature Mark Watney who must survive in the inhospitable environment of Mars. On an excursion during a sandstorm, a piece of debris struck his equipment and made his suit unable to communicate with the spacecraft. His crew, believing him dead, left him alone on the planet with nothing but the pop-up tents and the Hab, which was meant to last for a journey of less than a month. It is fascinating to watch Mark as he hacks the little equipment left to him to survive until NASA can send another spacecraft to retrieve him.

In the meantime, we get to see how politics and science clash as NASA endeavors to save Mark. We get a window on the calculated protocol through which information is shared or withheld from different groups of people. For example, NASA waited until the point Mark’s body would probably be buried by sand to turn the cameras on the landing site.

Another interesting, but somewhat spoilerific point (spoilers in white text, highlight to view), is that Zhu Tao, the Chinese scientist who built the booster that was offered to the Americans in exchange for a Chinese astronaut on their next mission, doesn’t look too happy at the launch. He says, “I spent four years working on Taiyang Shen [the booster]… In the end, we built a beautiful probe… and now it’s setting in a warehouse… The state Council won’t fund another booster like that. It could have been a lasting legacy of scientific research. Now it’s a delivery run. We’ll get a Chinese astronaut on Mars, but what science will he bring back that some other astronaut couldn’t have? This operation is a net loss for mankind’s knowledge.”

Mark Watney indirectly responds to the question of whether saving him was worth the massive expenditure with, “The cost for my survival must have been hundreds of millions of dollars. All to save one dorky botanist. Why bother? Well, okay. I know the answer to that. Part of it might be what I represent: progress, science, and the interplanetary future we’ve dreamed of for centuries. But really, they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out.” Hm. I didn’t find that all that convincing. I doubt this would happen in real life, but it would be a real bummer of a story of Mark just died up there so for narrative’s sake it’s important, even if it’s a little illogical.

One of the issues that’s been pointed out frequently with this book is that the smaller characters at the NASA base on Earth tend to blend together. Particularly Tim, Jack, and Mitch (although Mitch plays a bigger part towards the end). They all have pretty generic white male names and white male personalities and and near-indinguishable. Teddy, I remembered he was in one of the higher positions because it’s kind of an old-fashioned name which helped me remember he’s the older one. Vankat Kapoor and Mindy Park’s names are easier to remember, plus the omniscient narrator follows each of them in a couple scenes so we get to know their innermost thoughts decently well. Venkat is in charge of orchestrating Mark Watney’s rescue mission, and Mindy Park watches the cameras for signs of what’s happening to Mark (and complains frequently about her mechanical engineering degree being under-utilized, since she’s effectively acting as paparazzo). I didn’t particularly like either of them, but I had a clear mental picture of each of them, so that wasn’t bad (oddly enough I imagined Mindy Park as Mindy Kaling because of the shared first name and that they each have kind of a self-deprecating sense of humor).

Mark himself is interesting in that he’s more like the main character of a comedy movie or comic strip than of a book. He’s funny, optimistic, and sarcastic about the hardships he faces. After years of reading I’ve gotten used to angsty, troubled main characters, so this was different. Different is good. Different is also weird. I kind of missed that vulnerability in a main character, but psychically it was nice because it didn’t bring me down like Alaric Darconville from or Doctor Griffin. It was a nice change, but for me it made it hard to connect.

I also didn’t find a lot of Mark’s jokes funny. Other readers (particularly those partial to punning and dirty jokes) will probably find this book hilarious, though there were a few more whimsical jokes to appeal to more subtle senses of humor, like this one: “The dirt is only viable soil because of the bacteria growing in it. If I get rid of all the oxygen, the bacteria will die. I don’t have 100 billion little space suits handy.” For the most part, though, the humor is sarcasm and jokes about anatomy.

In terms of sexism, it’s got it pretty much under control. There are a couple slips, like when a male scientist comes up to Venkat, explains a complicated idea for how to save Watney, and then a female scientist comes up and asks for a Diet Coke. Actually, now that I think about it, there aren’t any named female scientists at the NASA base except for Mindy, who’s just watching the cameras and deciphering Mark’s activities. On the Mars mission, there was Commander Lewis, who made the hard decision to give the command to leave, and there was Johanssen, the computer specialist. Mindy, Lewis, and Johanssen were all pretty believable characters, but Lewis wasn’t really given a lot of focus (although she might have a larger role in the movie, since it’s been announced that Jessica Chastain will be playing her), Mindy didn’t really do anything, and Johanssen is small and attractive and gets some attention which might make female readers a little uncomfortable (it’s not that bad, but fair warning).

So, that’s The Martian in a nutshell. If you’re into chemistry, biology, physics, you’ll love this one. The science is very thorough but the jokes make it not too dry of a read if you’re not a scientist. Weir isn’t an amazing prose stylist, but his writing is economical and punchy. It keeps the suspense taut most of the time, except for when it dips into complicated explanations (I’m pretty math-illiterate, so I skimmed some of those parts with numbers). Overall, The Martian is a fun, challenging-in-a-different-way-than-most-novels kind of read, and I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in Mars fiction.

Rating: ☆☆☆☆✮

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2 thoughts on “The Martian by Andy Weir

  1. Yes, I completely share your point of view. I felt engaged, and even started doing my own personal research into astronomy and engineering just out enthusiasm for the technical development in the storyline. But then I got to those misogynistic lines and wondered if Weir was aware that he was excluding women. Yes, a woman is commander. But that does not override the blatant misogyny throughout the book.

    1. Beth is the hot chick on the ship. Everyone wants to sleep with her. She is “won” by her colleague Beck. But Mark still expresses how he (and every male he knows of) fancies her. There is a passage where she is having a conversation with her father and it is disgusting. He implies that she was the chaste, good daughter. He praises her for her CHASTITY over her computer genius. It is only worth making her a genius because she is hot.

    2. Mindy Park (a Korean-American) is perceived as less than Annie Montrose, because she is not beautiful. There is something sexist AND racist about the depiction of Park. She is the stereotypical meek Asian girl, whose brains in engineering don’t matter because all Asians are great as this subject. What she really wants is to be white; to exemplify eurocentric standards of beauty. Whether Weir meant this or not, he is admitting his own preference for eurocentric features. As well, Park remains subordinate to men. She never uses her voice.

    3. Park and Johanssen (Beth) both cry and tear up. The men don’t cry. The women do. Only Commander Lewis does not because she is a commander…seriously.

    4. More about racism. One of the NASA guys, either Teddy or Mitch refers to the whole Chinese population despicably. He says “these chinese nerds are a weird bunch”. Seriously. How must it feel, being Chinese and reading this? It undermines the great alliance between the Chinese and the American government….It makes them seem again, almost subordinate to the U.S. government.

    5. Dr. Kapoor is a Hindu and apparently it is funny that he is one. When asked if he believes in Gods he replies “lots of them”. Yes, Hinduism is polytheistic, but the context is weird. he also says “Oh gods!” …this seems to remind me of Apu from the Simpsons. The already established trope of the funny Hindu man. Seriously…what Hindu says “Oh gods”. This is pathetically racist.

    6. Martinez asks Beth who she would eat first if she was alone on Hermes after the rest of her crew died. She obviously did not want to answer this and Martinez says that he’s meaty. Then he says “what you don’t like Mexican”? He’s referring to his ethnicity as something delicious…this is how white people like to exploit others. It’s like saying “I love sushi” when you meet someone Japanese.

    7. Back to misogyny, the use of the word “rape” is absolutely abhorrent. He might as well stick in a Holocaust joke in there. I mean, there is no reason to use the word rape. He’s a writer, and he couldn’t think of another word? I almost puked when I read it. Immediately lost respect for the author.

    8. And then of course, the pangs of not sleeping with women. He could have written about an actual woman from home that he loved and missed. He could have written about relationships and intimacy and feeling less alone in the world. He could have written about kissing a woman or holding her in his arms. He could have mentioned sex ALONG with love instead of independent. And a lot of people have already picked up how he compared a Martian goddess to a human woman. Women are as real as hypothetical alien monsters huh? No one his character is single.

    9. The comment, as another person pointed out, about the gay spacecraft coming to save him. Why casually throw in the word “gay”? There was nothing empowering about it. I’m LGBT and I felt excluded and condescended to. It’s like saying “that’s so gay”. Weir is very behind the times.

    There’s a lot more disgusting anti-humanity sentiments in this book, which is such a shame because I felt more inspired to become a scientist after reading it. It gave me mixed messages. His narrative is privileged and demeaning. I get the feeling that women and people of colour are jokes to him. That this is nerdy white cishet male novel and is not meant for anyone else.

    • Absolutely! When I was reading this I kept wondering after most of the jokes: “Is this supposed to be funny? Am I being too uptight?”

      I could kind of see a Mexican guy making that joke about being Mexican food, because I think it’s actually a joke at Beth’s expense. He’s trying to make her uncomfortable about the possibility of having to eat the crew. I don’t think it’s like saying “I like sushi” to a Japanese person because Martinez is making that joke about himself but not at himself (if that makes sense). But Martinez is written by Weir, who is white, so that makes it complicated… usually POC can make jokes about their own race, but I’m not sure how it works with white authors and POC characters).

      The rape jokes and gay jokes were just stupid… high school students think the words “rape” or “gay” are funny because they’re told they are “bad words” and not to say them. Joking about them comes from a place of innocence and privilege. It shows that Weir is shallow and naive in his understanding of other people.

      I think a lot of the sexist/racist issues in this book are kind of in that gray zone where it’s not clear whether it’s portraying a sexist/racist reality or actually being sexist. Beth being a nerdy sex symbol and Mindy feeling ugly for wearing sweats seem like struggles that are just part of women’s everyday life, but I think the way that women are marginalized in the plot is sexist. I think the woman coming up to ask for a Diet Coke after a male scientist explains a high-brow theory was the most sexist part of the whole book because he’s contrasting what a man thinks about (complicated and important things) with what a woman thinks about (simple, frivolous, selfish things). The other things don’t seem to be implying anything bad about women themselves as about their expected gender roles.

      It didn’t bother me that Mark didn’t have a girlfriend or someone at home to pine for. Astronauts don’t have a lot of time for romantic relationships and they know that they’re going to be absent often, so it’s likely that it’s simply not a big priority. I feel like a lot of space movies try to make the astronauts as wholesome and American as possible by emphasizing their family life (Apollo 13) but that seems unrealistic to me. I also think not having a lover made Mark easier to relate to, because if there was a specific person it would be someone the reader doesn’t know and probably wouldn’t share Mark’s affection for (unless a lot of pages were spent developing that relationship at the beginning, which would make the plot move slower at the beginning and make it hard for people to get into). I liked that he was more or less celibate because that seems to be looked down on in society and we could use more portrayals of people being okay (or even awesome!) without being in a romantic relationship (I can’t even think of another Hollywood movie for adults where the main character didn’t have a love interest and wasn’t looking for one). I also found this article about why Mark being single doesn’t negatively affect the reader’s investment in his story really interesting: https://switchpile.wordpress.com/2015/11/30/being-cool/

      I think the title of that article “Why Being Cool Means No One Has To Love You” has a lot to do with why a lot of people don’t take issue with The Martian’s sexist and racist jokes. You can critique Mark’s sense of humor, but Mark doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would care. He might apologize, but the shallowness of his character suggests that he wouldn’t actually feel bad. If he saw us talking about the social implications of what he said, he’d just be like “Pfft, wimps,” and to those kinds of people, you can’t do much but ignore them because they see being told not to make sexist/racist jokes as an assault on their culture and independence of thought. TBH, it’s kind of a shitty culture that’s based on subjugating or rejecting every other culture, but how can you convince them when that’s what’s being reinforced by the surround-sound of popular media and inequalities in everyday life? As a female writer, I’ve been criticized for being sexist. Sexism and racism are so pervasive that it’s hard to be fair even to your own demographic. Although, I do think PC goes too far if it requires that all writers write utopian fiction. Fiction should be a place where it is acceptable for a writer to merely document social issues without subverting them, if that’s what the author wants to do. What’s not okay, in my opinion, is making statements (implied or overt) that reinforce damaging stereotypes about women or minorities (like the Diet Coke thing).

      As for the book being for white male cishet nerds, that’s true but I think it’s great that it’s reached a wider audience. Science fiction isn’t some obscure thing anymore because science has become so important in everyday life. I’m using a device created by science to talk to you right now. Because science fiction is transitioning from this insular, privileged club into something mainstream, these ideas about women and minorities that white cishet males will hold but not speak are coming to light, to be critiqued and explored and hopefully refuted.

      Sorry for the long RE, but thank you for the thought-provoking post! It really got me going. d(>w<)

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