Andy Weir's The Martian has created a media storm because of the way in which it moved from being self-published on Amazon to being published by Random House and made into a Ridley Scott directed movie starring Matt Damon as the Martian, or astronaut Mark Watney. As a novel it shows the effects on an earlier part of the writing process: an online discussion among science nerds (or dorks as Weir puts it). Much of the book reads as if you are viewing the main website without being given access to the comments. The story is told mostly as a log that Watney keeps, but it makes the book sound like the main character is Weir and he is not addressing whoever finds the log after Watney's death, but the fellow nerds who are pulling together the story. This results in early chapters (by early I am referring to more than 50% of the novel) that are so full of scientific minutiae that it crosses the boundary line from hard science fiction to hard to keep reading science fiction. This includes several breaches of the fourth wall that has Watney as Weir telling his log readers that they are probably thinking that he forgot something. At those points I was shouting back across the fourth wall to Weir, "Just write the book and worry about negative reviews later."
The novel would have been much better if it had been told in third person, especially as we are given third person narration of what is going on at NASA and Watney's story has a very brief piece of third person narration to explain a near disaster that could have been included in a log. The main gain from a third person perspective would be to allow the novel to show Watney working out how to survive after his fellow astronauts have abandoned him, presumed dead, on the surface of Mars. Instead the log approach involves telling us about what he has done and not only does this read like Weir discussing with his fellow nerds, but it gives those chapters a lack of tension. There are few points in the early chapters when the reader is gripped with a sense of fear for Watney, because you are reading a log from the obviously still alive and functioning astronaut.
That lack of tension is in stark contrast with the closing chapters, which are dominated by third person narration about the efforts of NASA to rescue Watney. There are still some logged chapters from Watney, but they are often written in response to the events that have been narrated about events away from Mars. Those closing chapters are fully loaded with tension and they explain why the novel has been so successful. So it well worth wading through listening in on one side of a science conversation in the earlier chapters as the novel turns out to be surprisingly good towards the end...
The biggest problem with this novel is with its marketing. It seemed such an obvious approach to tell the novel's rag to riches story about its early life as web discussion. Yet putting that information into the public domain colours the way in which those early chapters are read. Without that media spin I would probably have reacted much better to those science log chapters. I would still have preferred a third person narration, but I would not have been reading them thinking that this is still a web discussion group for space science nerds.
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