Mike Pozulp

September 14, 2015

The Inane Martian

A review of Andy Weir's space survival story, The Martian.

In his first novel of note, Andy Weir thoroughly explores the marooned-man-on-Mars trope in a well-researched, exciting, and plot-driven man vs. nature adventure. Weir did his research. Human space exploration, orbital mechanics, and planetary science are featured in great detail. Character depth and development are not. The story is eventful, the characters are dull and undeveloped. The protagonist, Mark Watney, is inane. Ultimately, Weir's exciting storytelling outshines his asinine protagonist and yields fruitful fiction.

For anyone who loves popular science and needs an entree into fiction, The Martian provides a great deal more satisfaction than the annals of contemporary novels. Science and ingenuity permeate the plot. In three hundred pages of scientifically-plausible survival scenario problem solving, Weir only strays thrice from reality. First, given the thinness of the Martian atmosphere, a Martian dust storm of the highest speed can only yield a maximum force equivalent to a 5 mile-per-hour breeze on Earth, far less than enough force to upend any person or piece of spacecraft requisite for initiating our astronaut's conflict. Second, existing radiation shielding technology is insufficient to protect human life from radiation-induced death, and Weir leaves no explanations for how his protagonist survives hundreds of days of radiation's onslaught. Third, a character from Chicago would never refer to a highway or expressway as a freeway.

Weir spent three years writing The Martian, including the time that it took to write the simulation software to check his math on the orbital mechanics. In order to write the book, Weir had to pick a launch date and strictly adhere to the physical consequences of that date - most importantly, the distance between Earth and Mars as a function of time. The accurate correspondence between the distance and the date can be verified using Watney's dated log, and is so precise that one can perform orbital mechanics calculations for the mission in reverse to determine the unspecified launch date.

Much of Weir's writing of Watney is pleasant, sarcastic deadpan. Late in the story Watney drinks "nothing tea," a sardonic reference to hot water consumed in the absence of anything to brew in it. These are enjoyable, light-hearted moments. Other Watney moments are cringe-worthy. One example is when Watney inexplicably invents the "pirate-ninja" as a novel unit of measurement. Aliased units exist in physics, but where one Newton is equal to one kilogram-meters per second squared, one "pirate-ninja" is equal to one confession of "I appropriate Internet culture." Pirate ninja, pirates v. ninjas, or any iteration of pirate and ninja, is a tired Internet meme. It is not meant for print today, much less over ten years ago when this meme was created and popularized. The same can be said for Weir's self-proclaimed favorite gag in the novel, the Aquaman joke, which is Internet-appropriated, incredibly stale, and shamelessly recycled as well.

Watney's destruction of the fourth wall in log-book ramblings does serve a larger purpose than conveyance of stolen jokes. In the absence of character development (aside from the superficial growth of Mindy Park, a minor character who is mentioned on fewer than ten pages), Watney's logs yield an inspiring quality in their thematic autonomy. Thoughts of failure are always facetious. Never does Watney question his ability to affect his survival. Watney unquestioningly avoids even partial adoption of the defeatist mental state. Perseverance in this manner is standard survival novel cliche. However, Weir's story has enough candor to jump Watney's survival instinct across the fine line from cliche to aphorism.

Andy Weir is a now a superstar novelist thanks to an engaging and accurate depiction of Martian survival. It matters not to Weir, nor the typical reader, that the thrilling plot is littered with poorly written and appropriated Internet culture, and is also totally absent any semblance of character development. Weir's unapologetic adherence to scientific plausibility, paired with an awesome story, is his saving grace. But, if there is a next time for Weir, and many readers including this reviewer hopes that there is, Weir needs to do without the adolescent diction, without the shameless cultural appropriation, and without cringe-inducing flippancy. The Martian is mainstream-exciting, science-driven, and completely inane.