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Review of The Martian

I actually read this a couple months ago after Bob recommended it to me. I don’t know why I did this, given that the last book Bob recommended to me, I hated, but in this case I made a good choice. The Martian was excellent and was indeed hard to set down.

Recently I’ve been seeing ads for the movie so I thought this was the right time to post a review. Don’t worry, no spoilers here.

I have lots of positive things to say but they’d pretty much involve spoilers of one sort or another so you’ll just have to take my word for it that I liked it.

On the negative side: I have only two criticisms of the book. The first is that the characters have no personality at all. OK, the main character has a little bit of personality—not a lot, but enough to get by. But the other characters: no, not really. That’s fine, the book is wonderful as it is, and doesn’t need any more characterization to do what it does, but I think it would’ve been better had the author not even tried. As it is, there are about 10 minor characters whom it’s hard to keep straight—they’re all different flavors of hardworking idealists—and I think it would’ve worked better to not even try to differentiate them. As it is, it’s a mess trying to keep track of who has what name and who does what job.

My more serious criticism concerns the ending. Again, no spoilers, and the ending is not terrible—at a technical level it’s somewhat satisfying (I’m not enough of a physicist to say more than that), but at the level of construction of a story arc, it didn’t really work for me.

Here’s what I think of the ending. The Martian is structured as a series of challenges: one at a time, there is a difficult or seemingly insurmountable problem that the character or characters solve, or try to solve, in some way. A lot of the fun comes when the solution of problem A leads to problem B later on. It’s an excellent metaphor for life (although not stated that way in the book; one of the strengths of The Martian is that the whole thing is played straight, so that the reader can draw the larger conclusions for him or herself).

OK, fine. So what I think is that Andy Weir, the author of The Martian, should’ve considered the ending of the book to be a challenge, not for his astronaut hero, but for himself: how to end the book in a satisfying way? It’s a challenge. A pure “win” for the hero would just feel too easy, but just leaving him on Mars or having him float off into space on his own, that’s just cheap pathos. And, given the structure of the book, an indeterminate ending would just be a cheat.

So how to do it? How to make an ending that works, on dramatic terms? I don’t know. I’m no novelist. All I do know is that, for me, the ending that Weir chose didn’t do the job. And I conjecture that had Weir framed it to himself as a problem to be solved with ingenuity, maybe he could’ve done it. It’s not easy—the great Tom Wolfe had problems with endings too—but it’s my impression that Weir would be up for the job, he seems pretty resourceful.

Something to look forward to in his next book, I suppose.

9 Comments

  1. Tom says:

    It is funny you talk about trailers for the movie. My major criticism of the book was that the whole time I was thinking ‘when is the movie coming out?’. I found myself seeing the narrative in terms of a potential film rather than as a work in itself – this is due to the way the book was written rather than actually wanting to see a film of the book.

  2. BenK says:

    Seems to be the book that demonstrates its own premise; each attempt to solve a problem creates a problem – and the book creates the problem of its own ending, which it cannot itself solve.

  3. Person says:

    Roald Dahl had problems with endings too.

  4. Z says:

    what was the last book that bob recommended?

    • Andrew says:

      Z

      The book Bob recommended earlier was A Clean Kill in Tokyo. It was not so great as an adventure story but, more than that, I just found it bloodthirsty and offensive, with everything set up so the hero is fully justified in every bit of his brutality. I like a good thriller and I don’t mind an antihero either, but this book just made me want to barf.

  5. Steve Sailer says:

    The books gets off to a bad start with the plot being set in motion by a dangerous windstorm on Mars. Huh? How bad can high wind be when there’s practically no atmosphere on Mars?

    But it gets a lot better after that.

    • Chris Mulligan says:

      Yeah, Weir has acknowledged that he knowingly fudged the storm at the beginning, because he wanted the initial disaster to be a force of nature thing that was nobody’s fault. A real storm, even crazy fast, would have very little force given the low density of the atmosphere.

      I generally agree that the ending is a letdown, but think the rest of the book makes up for it. Some of the minor characters are totally boring, but Mindy Park and Anne both seemed memorable.

      Also it’s interesting to note that it was originally a free book published on his website as a serial (since earlier novels of his had been rejected by publishers), and only after did he put it on Kindle because of reader demand. Then later it was bought up for publishing/movie rights.

      Overall, highly recommended.

  6. Njnnja says:

    Obligatory xkcd. Perfectly summed up.

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