A few months ago, I went to work for a legal referral service. My first day there, I signed up with a secret society of science fiction readers, dedicated to reading the entirety of the SF&F top 100 list and sounding witty while they do it. Which is how I ended up reading Andy Weir’s The Martian.
Mark Watney is a steely-eyed missile man.
Although, in my mind, he was a black guy from Chicago. Why Weir didn’t name Mark Watney “Smith” and go ahead and call it A Martian Called Smith, I’ll never know.
I enjoyed The Martian. It’s good. It’s not great, but it is very, very good. I can safely say that it’s the greatest Robinsonade of the 21st century. The Robinsonade in literature has been pretty sorely lacking since, oh, Lord of the Flies. And yet, with starry-eyed cheer, Andy Weir delivers a fine one. And, by God, he makes you believe in it, even if you think you know better.
In a lot of ways, The Martian is a throwback: science so hard you can break your teeth on it, the scientist as hero, the Robinsonade plot, the moral at the end almost straight out of Star Trek: The Next Generation. What George Lucas did for 1930s serials, Andy Weir has pretty successfully done for 1950s science fiction. I don’t mean the whole raygun gothic style, Watney’s sarcastic comments and pop-cultural awareness are closer to Star-Lord than Buck Rogers.
I mean the heart of old SF: an unshakable, almost religious faith in the power of a single individual to solve the hardest obstacles using brainpower and grit. I’m not the only one who’s made that connection.
I’ve heard it argued that Robinson Crusoe’s great strength is in Crusoe’s moral development over the course of the book. Remove that moral element, and you have Mysterious Island, which devolves into Swiss Family Robinson, which devolves, ultimately, into Survivor. All you have left is the clever tricks. The Martian escapes this fate by doing to the heart of old SF what Watney does with the artifacts left behind with him: dust them off, shine them up, and hook them up in a new way so everything works…mostly.
But Andy Weir isn’t mired in an SF future where everyone smokes and uses protractors. Watney, as mentioned, can go toe-to-toe with Star-Lord for wit, charm, and pop-culture references. He has the sense of the sardonic we’ve come to expect from all literature (and protagonists). More importantly, he needs other people in order to succeed. While Crusoe thanked God for a footprint in the sand, Mark Watney is both more proactive in finding company and has a slightly larger vision. Watney realizes that no man is an island, even when he’s the only man on Mars.
With that said, my great criticism is that The Martian offers nothing new. Mark Watney solves problems and defeats forces of nature, he comes up with clever tricks and makes history. It’s riveting to watch, and Watney is a great guy to spend a few hundred pages with. But you don’t come away from The Martian with any new ideas, or with any new ways of looking at things.
And, in the end, that’s the point of science fiction – to make us see things differently. Philip K. Dick made us question what was real, Frank Herbert demanded we look at messiahs with distrust, Ursula LeGuin challenged how we thought about gender. Back before them, Asimov showed us an alternative to Frankenstein and Heinlein showed us several alternatives to liberal democracy. The Martian doesn’t ask us to see things differently. Assuming we’re not already in the habit of seeing the world as populated by total fucking assholes, it’s pretty conventional. The Martian reassures us that yes, people are basically good and yes, human reason can overcome the worst difficulties. …and that’s about it.
I did enjoy the book as a marvelous adventure, same way I enjoy Captain Blood, Treasure Island, and, yes, Swiss Family Robinson. I have hopes that Andy Weir will set his sights a little higher with his next book, and the one after that, and the one after that. If he has vision and daring to match his storytelling and his science, he could be another Greg Bear or Robert Forward.
And when I’m in the mood for less mind-bending fare than Man in the High Castle, Blood Music or Neuromancer? When I need a dose of tarnished idealism, that still believes in the power of fragile flesh and steel, and by God make me believe, too?
I’ll pick up The Martian.