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Saturdays in Books

Reviews of speculative fiction, YA, middle grade, and graphic novels, along with stray thoughts, links, and pictures.

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The SFWA European Hall of Fame: Sixteen Contemporary Masterpieces of Science Fiction from the Continent
Kathryn Morrow, James K. Morrow

Review: The Martian

The Martian - Andy Weir

"I'm pretty much fucked.

That's my considered opinion."


The first quarter of this book is amazing. High on technical details, but very engagingly told in first person. Mark Watney, our fictional narrator fills his journal entries with occasional crude humor and the clever details of his narrow escapes and ongoing survival alone on Mars.


Then, sadly, he manages to communicate with Earth, and all the fun stops.


The first person sections are broken up with third person segments detailing activities on Earth and the Hermes (where the rest of the crew from Watney's mission are traveling back to Earth). Occasionally, they're from the perspective of a fabric panel, and the panels have just as much personality as any of the fictional NASA engineers. Which is to say, none.


These third person sections are completely flat. The perspective is uneven in a way that makes me wonder if Weir knows the difference between third person omniscient and third person objective.


And then there are the portrayals of women. A woman is introduced as a junior engineer, so obviously we get to watch her think about her lack of confidence. A woman is introduced as an expert coder, so of course we get to watch her cry. The only woman on Earth with any sort of leadership role is the head of PR, and she is more interested in getting a picture of the stranded astronaut than in his survival. The psychologist who assessed the crew is a woman. She describes Mark's humor as the glue that held the crew together rather than the boringly sexist drivel it is. The mission commander is also a woman, Lewis, and she is actually quite awesome. Eventually, the weaker ladies get to show off their competence, but it feels more like inconsistency in character descriptions than it does character growth. 


I have now covered every single named female employee in this fictional NASA.


But I probably shouldn't complain about how poorly these women are written. At least I can tell them apart. The rest of the male characters may as well be coat racks. 


There are a lot of cool scenes in this book, but I kind of wish I had just read the first person sections. I'm left with the impression that Weir is good at telling a certain style of self aggrandizing story, but isn't actually a very good writer.  That impression has only been solidified by skimming the Q&A at the end:  


"I'm the same level of smart-ass that he is. It was a really easy book to write; I just had him say what I would say. However, he's smarter than I am and considerably more brave. I guess he's who I wish I were." - Andy Weir


Yeah, no idea why I'm not checking to see if he has any other fiction available.


Okay, some responses on specific things Mark says will follow. As a general rule, ascribing a character's opinions to their author is rather silly. So. Obviously it would be foolish of anyone to conclude that my criticisms of Watney apply to Weir, even though Watney is who Weir wishes he was.


Good? Good.


Also, obviously, we're getting into potential spoiler territory.


I don't want to come across as saying sexism should never be shown in fiction, ever. I'm willing to role with the punches of a sexist POV. My problem tends to be when the text not only fails to critique these attitudes, but actually paints them as natural, real differences in the sexes or, worse, as positive characteristics. So Watney's jokes are not the issue. The place where this book and I parted ways was the place where the mission psychologist described him as having "a great sense of humor," and his jokes as "the catalyst to make the group work." 


Um. No. Maybe that's what a (completely hypothetical) layman who thinks Watney is the ideal version of himself would think, but that isn't a psychological assessment of sexist jokes in a mixed gender group. That is bullshit. Even if a woman says it. Even if a woman is in charge of the group.


Bull. Shit.


That's the context for the following lovely jokes:


"JPL: Everything you type is being broadcast live all over the world.

WATNEY: Look! A pair of boobs! -> (.Y.)"


"JPL: You're cleared to start drilling.

WATNEY: That's what she said.

JPL: Seriously, Mark? Seriously?"


"Also, Please tell them that each and every one of their mothers is a prostitute.


PS: Their sisters, too."


His advice to one of the male crew members is to proposition one of the women on the crew, though he admits he has no idea if she's interested. In being propositioned by a coworker. In a work space the size of an RV. That neither of them can leave for months. Obviously, Watney doesn't suggest (or even mention) this to her. Also, obviously, this works. Can you hear my teeth grinding?


He also describes modifications to a mechanical system as "rape" because, hey, while women's bodies exist for public use, actual objects are sacred.


Someone else may want to examine his not infrequent use of "ghetto" as an adjective, but I want to wrap this whole thing up so I can delete it from my Kindle. 


One final quote. 


"a botanist/mechanical engineer doesn't exactly have ladies lined up at the door"


Dear Mark, it isn't us, it's you. We aren't not fucking you because of your job description. We just don't like jerks.