Second of all, spoiler below.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I have to say that I was expecting to like The Martian (Andy Weir, 2011) much more than I did. While the idea is good, and I didn’t hate it, the writing is average, the humor is sophomoric, and the element of suspense is largely misused. I’ll give Weir points for reimagining the lone survivor archetype – The Martian is essentially Robinson Crusoe in space – but he quickly loses them with his unexceptional writing style.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am a reader for style and not for content. Not that a fast-paced plot can’t hook me, but more often I am drawn to stories where not much happens, but the writing itself is a thing of beauty. It’s a personal preference and I respect that others feel differently. However, this means that when faced with a story that is lacking in both departments, I feel lukewarm toward it. My main issue with The Martian is that the humor and the characters feel flat. I like a good “that’s what she said” as much as the next person, but when it shows up in a disaster communication between an astronaut and NASA, it feels forced. Likewise, I don’t mind swear words in the least, but when they’re strewn throughout a narrative like ants at a picnic, they lose their comedic effect. And the fifth time Mark Watney (the titular “Martian”) chided his fellow astronaut’s penchant for disco music, I had ceased to care.
I spent a lot of time wondering why this book left me cold while books like Lamb, Good Omens, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide left me in stitches. I think it boils down to this: in these other books, the authors let the readers figure out the punchlines themselves. Weir, wanting to be extra sure his audience understands his joke-telling ability 100%, comes across as dumbed down and trite. I do not need you to explain your jokes to me. I could go on to criticize Weir’s jarring transition between Watney’s first person account and random third person omniscience, his inability to make every other character speak and think differently than Watney, and say, too, that when you’re telling a comedic story, you can’t also expect the reader to wonder if the main character’s going to be okay at the end. Unless you’re a horrifically awful writer, as opposed to a merely average one, we already know the story’s not going to end with, “And then they all died.” These and many other things bugged me.
Nonetheless, I do think it will make a successful movie, which I plan to see. This is mostly because I believe Matt Damon can imbue Mark Watney’s voice with a level of wit and shrewdness sorely lacking in the book and that the visuals will create a richer environment than what Weir attempted to convey on the page. Still, I’ll make sure to adjust my expectations accordingly when that time comes.