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  • Donald J. Bingle, Writer on Demand

A Review of The Martian

Andy Weir's The Martian already has more than 7,500 reviews on Amazon, so I doubt my review would be much noticed there, which is why I am posting it on my blog, instead. Yes, I know you've already heard about the book and that it is up for some major awards, but I thought I'd give you my take anyway, for what it's worth. Here goes: Three Out of Five Stars for The Martian, A Good, But Not Great, Book: Yes, I'm a fan of hard scifi (I love Mission of Gravity) as well as soft scifi and I know The Martian has all sorts of geeky math, science, and engineering goodness, but I just didn't get as excited about the book as some of my scifi friends. So, let's talk about the strengths and weaknesses of The Martian: I like that the book includes a lot of scientific problem-solving. Not only does it feed the geeky soul of scifi readers with backgrounds in math, chemistry, physics, engineering, and computer science, but it respects the hell out of intelligence in readers. Let's face it, not enough books do that. But, I confess that as the book went on, the math and engineering did get a bit tedious at times. In addition, all that scientific truth and exact calculation makes the book's scientific omissions that much more glaring and troublesome. What's the number one issue about manned space-flight to Mars? Radiation. But we actually get almost nothing in the book about the difficulties radiation poses other than the simple statement on page 108 that "the Hab canvas shields from electromagnetic waves." Frustrating. While I, like many others, like the voice of the main character--funny, sarcastic, self-deprecating, yet knowledgeable, I didn't find most of the other characters as three-dimensional. Maybe that's because the main character's voice is the closest to the author's. Perhaps, too, the difference is partly because the main character is mostly heard as journal entries, which is a perfectly acceptable choice, but has a few drawbacks. First, it undercuts tension a bit, because many obstacles (not all, of course) are overcome by the time the reader first learns of them. Second, because it means the author is almost always telling (because he is literally reporting what has happened in a journal), rather than showing, so there is a loss of immediacy and action verbs. While the beginning of the novel is interesting, the whole way through it I was wishing that the storm and the bug-out and the accident and the abandonment had all occurred as an action scene, as that would be a much better hook. (I confess that I thought that all the way up until the flashback to such scene, which I found to be confusing and artificial--so maybe that editing choice was for the best.) And, as long as we are talking about stylistic narrative choices here, is there anyone out there who didn't know the second the book started talking about the manufacture of the fabric that it was going to fail in a few chapters? Many of the Earth-based conversations and decisions seemed less credible (or more contrived) than the Martian-based events (e.g., the delay in assessing the site with satellites, the rush to have the crew return without delay, the lack of focus on a back-up communication system once contact was established, the delay in informing the rest of the crew their crewmate was alive, and the lack of any meaningful debate about resources for the rescue effort). But for me, the biggest issue with the book was the lack of any real discussion of cost/benefit on the rescue effort and what that means for society. While I love hard scifi, what really makes scifi great for me is how it deals with the impact of science on humanity and how it intersects with society and questions of philosophy. While it is true that America has a fixation on issue personalization (we'll spend millions to rescue a baby from a well, but almost nothing per person on pre-natal vitamins or keeping storm water from mixing with raw sewerage during a big storm and running into our swimming holes and water supplies), the lack of any meaningful discussion or debate about the alternate use of funds for this rescue, whether for other space/scientific projects or societal safety net projects was not only disappointing, but unrealistic. Truth told, I don't think I would have used that many resources to save this one guy, no matter how funny and sarcastic he was. So, bottom line, while I like the book and know that I never could have written it, it left me less impressed than others in terms of what I look for in science fiction. As a comparison, I think Robert J. Sawyer does a better (though not perfect) job of mixing hard science with interesting philosophical and moral debates about the impact of science on mankind, so The Martian gets only a middling rating from me. Always happy to hear what you think. Aloha, Don

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