May 16, 2015

The Martian, by Andy Weir

I really really really really really wanted to love this book. It's so rare that a book of science fiction, especially hard sci fi, gets so much attention from such a wide range of readers. Not only is it a bestseller several times over, people of all stripes have tried it out purely on the effusive praise of their trusted bookseller. So it truly pains me to say that I found it rather boring and poorly written.

Now, it is a debut novel, and first novels always have their weaknesses no matter how good they are. The biggest problem with "The Martian" is the dialogue. It's supremely bad. A math geek friend of mine tried to convince me that that's how math geeks actually speak, but I have a hard time believing it. Very few people are that clever AND that awkward at the same time. The next biggest problem is one of overall effect. It's a book written as though it were a movie. I ran into this problem with Justin Cronin's sequel to "The Passage," which feels more like a very descriptive screenplay than a novel. Hollywood's obsession with making movie versions of books has led to a rash of books written like movies. Very few people get rich writing books, but you can make a pretty penny if that book's movie rights get bought. And even if that isn't the author's intention, writing a book like a movie is easier than writing a book like a book. Movies are spectacles; books are more subtle, and subtlety is hard. Third problem: the hard sci fi stuff is pretty boring. Perhaps that's because it's mostly math as opposed to science, and I personally find the latter much more interesting than the former. But as someone who regularly reads hard sci fi written by the likes of Kim Stanley Robinson and Neal Stephenson, "The Martian" just doesn't hold up. Sixty pages in and I was already skimming large chunks of text to get to Mark Watney's pithy one-liners at the end of each log entry.

All that being said, it's not a terrible book, just not a very good one, and I'm glad that hard sci fi is getting wider attention among readers. I just wish it were a better book that had done the trick.


  1. What has happened to good writing? The book was bad, bad, bad. I've read instruction manuals on how to put together a swing set that was more fun to read. How is it that people with NO WRITTING SKILLS get so much attention. Are we in a artistic new dark age here in the US?

    1. Part of the problem is that very well-written literature is also difficult to read. You have to actively read it, you can't blaze through it like most mysteries or romance novels. This isn't to say those books are bad, just that they are more likely to be bad than what is called "literary fiction." A book of incredible short stories is just never going to be as popular as the new James Patterson, because the latter is so much easier to read. And I think that was always the case; none of this is new. Penny dreadfuls and serialized romances were far more popular than literary fiction even three hundred years ago. So no, no dark age, just the unrelenting force of human boredom small attention spans.