This is a blog with spoiler free reviews. Most will be Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror, but there will be some books in other genres, including the occasional Non-Fiction review. There is an ongoing series of Cover Reveal Round-Ups, and sometimes I'll write an article on something that interests me.

11 March, 2014

REVIEW: THE MARTIAN



THE MARTIAN
BY
ANDY WEIR

ISBN: 978-0-8041-3902-1
Pages: 384
Publisher: Crown Publishing
Published: 11 February 2014

On the cover:
 (From the publisher's website.)
 

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.

Now, he's sure he'll be the first person to die there.

After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.

Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to kill him first.

But Mark isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?


   Before I start off the actual review, I have to tell you a little anecdote from when I grew up. Back in around 1980 my grandparents had what would be defined as a smallholding. It wasn't big, basically just a patch of land along a road going through a farm-field.About a quarter of that property was used to grow potatoes. When I was a kid I used to help with setting the potatoes in the ground in the spring, and getting them out of there in the autumn. This was done by hand.So, despite being a city-boy I have personal experience with low-tech potato growing.

   At this point you might very well wonder what my personal anecdote has to do with a Science Fiction book? It's actually pretty essential. The growing of potatoes is essential to the whole premise of the book. And for me it is also where things start to fall apart. My recollection of potato farming doesn't completely mesh with what happens in the book. I'll grant that I could be misremembering things, it is after all 30+ years ago, but I am pretty sure there are flaws in the book's description.
   This is actually a huge problem when it comes to this novel, there is a lot that has to be bought without question when it comes to science in this narrative , most of it quite more advanced than potato growing. Usually I would have no problem accepting this science as facts, I assume that the author has done his research. But when I feel something is wrong I start on the path to distrust, and that brings me out of the story. Basically, my suspension of disbelief has ended, and I stop taking the story seriously.
   Not taking a story seriously need not be a problem. I enjoy Action Adventure and Action Thriller books, neither of which usually has a close relationship with realistic events. This is however a Science Fiction novel, and one that spends a lot of time setting up its science.

   That is really where The Martian falls down for me. It spends so much time trying to be a Hard SF book, more than enough time is spent with the science of surviving to bore anyone who isn't planning to get marooned on Mars. Even if I didn't have the potato-problem I stated above there is so much science talk here that it quickly takes on the cloak of techno-babble. Page after page of unnecessary detail that add nothing to the story, just shows off how little story there really is.
   This is coupled with lots of plot-points that make little or no sense. Even the events leading up to the novel's starting point seem to be taken straight out of an Action Adventure novel. And as in an Action Adventure novel there are problems facing the "hero" that seem totally unlikely to even occur once, yet they keep coming up time and time again. That the main character always has the skills needed to rig together a solution keeps getting less and less plausible.
   Before the novel was halfway through, I was already fed up with the obstacles put in the main characters way. There was simply too many of them, and it started to feel repetitive, like there was a list that needed to be gotten through before the end of the novel. And at times it feels like you're reading a novelisation of a Final Destination movie with all the coincidences. There were times I thought about abandoning the novel because of the repetitive series of obstacles.

   When it abandons Hard SF the novel works well. Weir writes good action and suspense, and in the passages that aren't smothered by techno-babble the novel flows well. But it is bogged down by the structure of the novel, everything on Mars is told as a journal/log. That gets very dry. Worse than that it means we are distanced to some degree from the main character, and I found I only started caring about his survival when it would mean success for the people back on Earth. I felt the main character only came to life when he interacted with others, and for much of the novel he's completely on his own.
   The Earth-set parts of the narrative work much better. There's a bigger cast of characters, and their interactions makes the story flow much better. I even found there to be more tension in what is happening elsewhere than Mars, and it also brought more immediacy to what is going on on the red planet. However, some of the tension that could have been there from the Earth point of view is lost when we already know what is happening on the surface of Mars.

   There is some glimpses of a good story here. The final chapter especially is giving us a glimpse of a suspense-filled story. Unfortunately, at that point the only thing I really cared about was being done with this book.
   If pressed to describe this book in one word I would choose uneven. It's all over the place when it comes to pacing, especially between the Hard SF parts and the Action Adventure parts. For me the Hard SF parts became just a distraction from what is in parts a good, and tense, story.They also felt completely out of place in a narrative that contains lots of elements you'd be more inclined to look for in a summer blockbuster movie than in a novel of this type.
   There's plenty of good ideas here, and at times Weir shows he can pull off a fast-paced narrative, but I feel it fails in becoming a coherent whole. There's glimpses of something much better here, but they get lost in a desire to be both action-filled entertainment and dry Hard SF. Even with all those problems I feel that this would be an interesting novel for those that are interested in fiction about the exploration of the Solar System.

LINKS: Andy Weir  Crown Publishing

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