Andy Weir’s The Martian is Sci-Fi for the non-Sci-Fi reader

indexWhether or not you’re a fan of science-fiction, you should read Andy Weir’s The Martian. This tale of astronaut Mark Watney, who finds himself left for dead on Mars when his crew is forced to evacuate, is funny and engaging. The engineer/botanist/astronaut Mark Watney is a likeable main character with a quick, self-deprecating wit and a dazzling intellect. The science in Andy Weir’s story is as sharp as his main character. In interviews Weir has insisted that the problems and solutions he presents are all scientifically feasible and that he used the science to drive the plot of his novel. If you’re a reader of science-fiction you’ll probably love the intricacies of space exploration that Weir captures on the page. If you’re not a reader of science-fiction you’ll be drawn to the “castaway on Mars” story and its themes of survival and perseverance.

The Martian came to be published in an unusual manner. Weir is a computer scientist who conducted his research on space exploration out of personal interest and published his story in serial form, a chapter at a time, for free on his blog. When his readers asked that he publish The Martian as an ebook so that they could more easily read in on their e-readers Weir self-published via Amazon and sold his book for $.99 a pop (the minimum Amazon will allow). He quickly rose to the top of Amazon’s sci-fi sales chart. Then came the publishing deal. Then the movie deal. Pretty cool stuff.

The Martian is a good book that could have been a great one. Weir doesn’t excel at developing believable secondary characters. The supporting cast seems one-note; the mission commander with a love of disco music, the satellite technician bristling at being no more than a picture-taker. Even Mark Watney, the affable leading man, was badly in need of substance. In one scene he asks a fellow astronaut to take care of his parents but then we don’t hear about his family again. Towards the end of the novel he remarks that it’s been years since he saw a woman but this only comes up once. No matter how optimistic, any man would spend time worrying about his family of bemoaning his circumstances if he found himself in Watney’s shoes.   The science in the novel, while impressive, is allowed to run a bit amok. Weir wants to show off his intellect and as a science-minded individual is committed to proving to the reader that his scenarios are feasible but it gets tiresome particularly in the opening act.

This all begs an interesting question: in these types of acquisitions where the full text is already out in the world and has a large and loving audience, how much editing can/should happen at the hands of the publishing house? If The Martian had been acquired in the traditional way the editor would certainly have insisted that Weir break up the long scientific explanations and that he give his secondary characters more to do. I’m generally quite critical of these self-publishing arrangements for this exact reason; self-published books really highlight the value of the traditional publishing process, particularly editing (I’m looking at you, Fifty Shades of Grey).

Criticism aside, Mr. Weir is a genius and after the success of The Martian he will have no trouble finding a home for his future work. I’m excited to see the fruit of his imagination and intellect shaped by the hands of an expert editor.

Kind thanks to Crown Publishing’s Blogging for Books program for the review copy of The Martian.

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2 thoughts on “Andy Weir’s The Martian is Sci-Fi for the non-Sci-Fi reader

    • I completely agree with your criticism that the plot is repetitive: “Something goes wrong, he explains a complicated plan to solve it, involving intricate chemistry or physics, he thinks it has worked, then it doesn’t, there is a technical explanation of why, followed by another intricate plan and so on.” I really, really believe that that if his future work goes through a couple of revisions it will be excellent. Thanks for commenting!

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