By now you’ve heard of Mark Watney’s plight in Andy Weir’s book The Martian. Weir’s blockbuster, self-published book has accomplished what few books ever will. It’s a New York Times best-seller, and there is now a film adaptation starring Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain with director Ridley Scott (Alien and Blade Runner) at the helm.
Astronaut Mark Watney is left for dead on Mars. What follows is a survival tale, painstakingly researched, bursting with scientific facts, and threaded with humor. But at the core, there is Watney, a mostly likable character, who makes wading through Weir’s layers of exposition a worthy struggle.
The book’s popularity flaunts financial success in the face of science fiction writing conventions. Mainly these: “reduce exposition,” “don’t use dialogue to info dump the reader,” and “don’t info dump in general.” These editorial commandments are meant to make prose engaging and less bogged down by a textbook-style presentation dominated by explanation rather than story narrative. Industry wisdom says this expository style bores readers.
The Martian embraces info dumping and exposition sometimes to a mind-numbing effect. But there are three things the novel has going for it that make this presentation bearable:
1) Watney is Likable
Watney is funny, sometimes charismatic and, most importantly, inventive. It’s his ingenuity that perhaps holds one of the keys to the book’s mass appeal.
He is a scientist survivalist describing to us each modification and calculation needed to accomplish Martian survival. He shares a similar character attribute with Walter White from Breaking Bad: applying scientific knowledge to the available resources around him in order to solve problems.
This is an important characteristic for Mark Watney, maybe more so than for Walter White, because it drives the plot and allows him to continually master his circumstances. It’s perhaps the same appeal a character like MacGyver had for audiences in the 80s and early 90s.
The “master of dire circumstances” type of character turns his knowledge into action to solve problems in unexpected ways. There is dramatic tension in that, the potential for surprise, and the appeal of a character who can do anything he puts his mind to, especially when in danger.
Just when my eyes were tearing up from Watney’s procedures and technical descriptions, he would crack a joke. Not all were funny, but it’s this lightheartedness and positive attitude in the face of death that made most of the humor successful.
3) The Insane Amount of Research
Watney’s likability and humor and his appeal as a problem solver may carry readers through the narrative’s oddities and sometimes daunting exposition, but these characteristics aren’t exactly revolutionary and don’t represent the real achievement of the book.
The real achievement of The Martian is the research.
From how the rovers work to liquefied food destroying a rocket launch, the details expressed in this book convey a crazy level of research and painstaking thought into how Watney’s survival could work. Both the extremely curious and the technically minded will find satisfaction in the “hard science fiction” elements Weir employs.
The technical details and facts were this book’s biggest achievement, yet their presentation made the novel hard to get through to a fault. Presentation and explanation of the technical and the scientific are a common challenge for the science fiction writer. How can we explain science while creating an engaging narrative? It’s a question I imagine all science fiction writers must answer for themselves.
The Martian is a perfect candidate for a movie adaptation and, at times, reads as if it were a screenplay adapted into a novel with characters “exiting” rooms and Watney’s one-liner quips. Films naturally tend to filter out exposition when adapted from books but without the book’s scientific detail, I wonder if the movie will lose the novel’s real achievement.