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The Martian
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2014 Reads > TM: My one criticism (Possible spoilers for the first 2/3rds of the book)

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Joe Informatico (joeinformatico) | 888 comments I try to avoid major plot spoilers below, but I draw upon most of the book's first 60% or so for this so be warned.

So I read this book just over a month ago and absolutely loved it. It was the right balance of compelling human drama, gripping suspense, and hard science grounded in reality. And the right amount of humour.

That said, one thing--well, a bunch of related things--really challenged my suspension of disbelief, and that was most of the stuff happening back on Earth. Those were the parts of the book that required me to constantly remind myself, "these parts doesn't always make sense, but you have to get past them to enjoy how great this book is otherwise."

We have a NASA plucked from the mid-1960s, using technology we're still a good 10-20 years away from having, dealing with an American society from the mid-1990s, contrasted with a People's Republic of China that feels like the one we have right now. I'll elaborate point-by-point:

NASA in The Martian is portrayed as an effective state bureaucracy that still enjoys support from both the government and the public at large. They talk about money troubles, but are still able to perform all their duties and functions in-house. They have nothing like the concerns of today's cash-strapped agency turning increasingly to private-sector solutions for its day-to-day operations that the majority of voters are indifferent to in the face of government cutbacks. This NASA is able to mount not one, not two, but four manned Mars missions alone, without the support of even another government. There is a foreign national among the Ares 3 crew, but no indication that he's a member of the European Space Agency or any indication he's anything but a NASA employee who happens to be German. This NASA doesn't feel like the real-world NASA, or the likely NASA of 15-30 years from now. This sounds like the NASA at the height of the Apollo program.

Since no one's built or started building a plausible manned vehicle/habitat to get to Mars, and given how long the process would take, and the radiation issue (thanks Jenz!) and the length of the trip, the chances of human beings getting to Mars before the end of the next decade are extremely low. If you also want the astronauts to return safely to Earth, those chances become effectively zero. So The Martian's NASA has clearly licked all those problems, and already done this twice successfully by the beginning of the novel--it must be the year 2035 at the earliest, or an alternate-history version of 2013 where the American public never lost its enthusiasm and support for space exploration.

What definitely didn't feel right to me was the handling of the general public reaction. It seemed like NASA's PR department was only concerned with what CNN would report, like this was a story breaking in 1998. No Fox News, no MSNBC, no BBC, Al-Jazeera, Xinhua, or RT.com. Other than a brief joke Watney makes about "www.watch-mark-watney-die.com", there is no mention of social media whatsoever. No "6 Astronauts Almost as Badass as Mark Watney" stories on Cracked.com, no "#SaveMarkWatney" trending on Twitter, no GIFs from Total Recall captioned "Get your ass off Mars":



NASA's able to control the communications with the Ares 3 crew absolutely. No one else, whether another nation or a non-state actor, with the ability to even try and circumvent NASA's exclusive channel to them seems to exist. There's no threat of information leaks or hacks from within or without--only loyal NASA employees communicate with Watney and the rest of the Ares 3 crew, and only the dozen or so admins decide what to tell CNN and the astronauts' families.

When NASA needs help, they only go to China. Not Russia, not the European Space Agency, not any of the private space corporations. There's no widespread attempt to raise money for Watney's rescue, it's just assumed taxpayer dollars are sufficient. They only need China because the China National Space Administration has an appropriate bird ready to fly.

This doesn't detract from Weir's book. He wanted to write a suspenseful human drama filled with the technical details of getting to and surviving Mars, Robinson Crusoe married to Of a Fire on the Moon by way of Apollo 13, and The Martian more than succeeds at that. In all likelihood, this taut, nearly perfect technothriller work of suspense, drama, and humour would have been diluted by any attempts to introduce more realistic politics or projections of near-future society. The fact there are almost no pop-culture references dating after 1979 hints that Weir wanted this story to have a timeless appeal, and not be fixed to the time it was written. I totally and completely respect that. But some irrational part of me, upon reading something that's 95% perfect, makes me wish it was 100% perfect.


Michele | 1154 comments Well, the NASA aspects get even more unbelievable by the end.

But the fact is the only way to make it all more realistic would have been to set it even further into the future and then made up some stuff about the new surge of humanity's desire to go into space or something. And that would make all the realistic science behind his struggle to stay alive pointless because tech would be way advanced.

Well, I noticed that stuff and then put it aside. That's not what the story is about. And I think any more politics/drama on Earth would have just dragged the story down, or at least changed the whole focus.

I actually think he could have cut out pretty much all of the Earthside scenes, leaving us with only Mark's perspective throughout, and that would have been perhaps more suspenseful.


Trike | 8304 comments Reposting from the other thread:

I did kind of wonder if Weir wasn't hinting at a more totalitarian state in the near future.

We're still fighting for Net Neutrality, which just received another blow last week, and there's increasing evidence that the younger generation is actually disconnecting from the internet and going peer-to-peer. It's already happening to a large degree in Japan, and we've seen these types of massive swings in public behavior in just the past 30 years.

If you'd written a story 15 years ago about an America that featured a black President, legalized marijuana, the bankruptcy of GM, widespread acceptance of gay marriage, a terrorist attack that brought down the twin towers, indefinite detention of political prisoners as well as an NSA that spied on the Star Trek communicators everyone carried in their pockets... well, you'd probably be hooted at and had rotten fruit thrown at you.

So for me, having lived through much stranger shifts in American culture both publicly and politically, I didn't have any issue whatsoever with the future portrayed in The Martian. There's no guarantee that what we're seeing today will be true 15 years from now.


Darren This is the first Mars book I have really enjoyed since Red Mars. Some of the dangers are underplayed, like radiation, which doesn't even get mentioned for a large portion, and there really isn't the sense of place you get in Robinson's book, but there also isn't any "oh and by the way, we figured out how to make everyone immortal..."


KWinks   (icameheretoread) | 31 comments I took everything Weir handed out like free samples at the donut factory, I just loved the story that much. But, in the back of my mind was this voice that continued to scream, "they would never spend this much time and effort to save one person!" I killed that voice with extra helpings of caffeine and returned to loving the book.


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Nicole | 9 comments I agree with Kwinks, in fact I never thought about the NASA isn't like this line. I was curious about when he was setting this, as a year was never mentioned. There were a couple pop culture references, as it was further enough that Mark never was exposed to '70s tv, or disco, he mentioned at the beginning about his Wikipedia page listing Sol 6 as his date of death, so I was more figuring that this was further along into our future when travel to Mars is more plausible and suddenly extremely exciting for the world population. I don't know if the German on board was ESA or not, but I would presume so in my opinion. It all made it feel in the plausible future, for me, but not to the point where major political lines had been blurred or really changed that much.

It was fun, enjoyable, I laughed, and really liked the book.


Andrew Knighton | 158 comments I hadn't thought about this aspect of the book as I read it, but I now I reflect on it it feels under-developed. Not that I would have wanted any more time spent on the Nasa stuff - I really enjoyed the book and thought the balance of time spent with them was about right - but it did seem less well thought out than the rest.

I thought the slightly old-fashioned cultural references were a deliberate attempt to avoid putting in things that would date badly, and to make readers respond in a similar way to Watney. But I wonder if there's also something broader going on. In the same way that the TV show Archer uses a mis-matched mix of culture and technology to avoid the question of when this is all happening, the mix of old music and TV, older domestic political culture and current international politics lifted the Earth-based parts of the book out of any specific point in time, creating a comfortable and familiar feeling around life back home.


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Ben Rowe (benwickens) I actually have lots of issues with this book. I think though that the book does need to be looked at in the context of being the first published work of an author and as a result it is probably best to give the writer some slack.

I do not particularly rate Weir's characterization skills and I think the weaknesses there are most evident when we get away from Mars. I agree that the extra POV's and non-mars sections were too many, were less believable and less engaging than the Mars sections. I found it hard not to skim over them when reading the book.

I am not sure whether the book would have been better without them, as it might have been a bit samey without the different characters/ perspectives but I do think Weir was on less sure ground as a writer on these sections in terms of writing, characterization and believability of the whole thing.


Julian Arce | 71 comments I also never gave it much thought about it, but I guess you're right.

One explanation is simply convenience - If th Ares program had been a joint program with the Europeans and Japanese, then imagine the amount of red tape. The bureaucratic problems had to be somehow real, but still not too much to make the book boring. It simplifies things I guess.

As for not going to private contractors or the Russians, you have to keep on mind that is one thing to make orbit, and a different one to take any kind of payload out of the gravity well. I think there isnt right now any kind of ship that can take the 900 kilos that the Chinesse spacecraft could put it Mars. It also made it more dramatic.


Shaina (shainaeg) | 165 comments I actually thought that the most crazy thing was how much money they were throwing at this and where the money was coming from. Somehow they came up with insane amounts of money without canceling other missions. Where is the money actually coming from?

I can't decide if I find all of this money and effort going into saving one person believable. Keeping people's faith in the space program can only go so far. Members of the military and the American public and the world as a whole die every day and that money could go a long way to saving a lot of people.


Fiona (deifio) | 95 comments Now that I think about it you are right.
But I never noticed when reading the book. I wonder if the well-funded NASA, etc. were decisions Weir made, or if he just wrote it that way and never thought about it much.

The thing that was hard to believe for me, was Watney's almost complete lack of loneliness. He mentions being lonely a couple of times, but I would have expected it would me more of an issue. Watney's dark humour saves him from going insane the whole time he's there. But he must be terribly lonely and I think he talks about it way to little.
Also where is the NASA psychologist? You'd think there'd be one for counseling the crew of Hermes and then later Watney himself.


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Ben (bennewton_1) | 253 comments Shaina wrote: "I actually thought that the most crazy thing was how much money they were throwing at this and where the money was coming from. Somehow they came up with insane amounts of money without canceling ..."

See, I disagree here. If a US astronaut were stranded on Mars or the moon or somewhere else in space facing death by starvation, I can't imagine that NASA and the US government wouldn't exhaust every possible avenue to rescue them regardless of cost. It would be political suicide, for one thing.


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Ben Rowe (benwickens) The almost complete lack of loneliness Watney experiences is part of the biggest problem I have with the book which I will probably start in a separate thread at some point.

Basically he is a version of the "competent white dude in space solve problems" character we have seen so often it is more of a cliche than the over the hill male detective with addiction issues who is great at solving crimes but is terrible with everything else. Watney is neither an interesting or credible character except in that he serves as a function for an upbeat problem solving story.


Stephanie Griffin | 49 comments Watney doesn't have TIME to dwell on his loneliness! He's fighting for survival and debating the best way to establish communication with Earth.


Rob Secundus (quintessential_defenestration) | 1035 comments Joe Informatico wrote: "I try to avoid major plot spoilers below, but I draw upon most of the book's first 60% or so for this so be warned.

So I read this book just over a month ago and absolutely loved it. It was the r..."


W/r/t the well-funded NASA: isn't it believable that in thirty or so years, if America had its debt under control and suddenly NASA announced that technology had now reached the point where we could theoretically go to Mars if the taxpayers were willing to chip in, that the public and government would jump on that? After the bitter cynicism of our present culture, a huge reaction against all that, symbolized by Humanity Making It To Mars?

w/r/t the news, one of the interviewers thus far (I'm not finished the book quite yet) is indeed from the BBC. No other foreign networks though, to my recollection

W/r/t social media, yeah, this is probably where I agree the most with your critique, it's incredibly unrealistic that social media plays absolutely no role in this. But this was probably a hurdle Weir couldn't past; he wanted to avoid dating the book, and how exactly can one address social media (which changes every few years) without cheesily inventing Tweetbook?


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kvon | 562 comments I wondered about the effort to save Whatney, and the regular tv specials, and thought not likely. Then the plane in Malaysia went missing, and the amount of time CNN covered it not being found, and the amount of resources spent on it, made this look more realistic.


Tamahome | 6195 comments A Watney CNN tv show? Mmmm cold be.


Trike | 8304 comments kvon wrote: "I wondered about the effort to save Whatney, and the regular tv specials, and thought not likely. Then the plane in Malaysia went missing, and the amount of time CNN covered it not being found, and the amount of resources spent on it, made this look more realistic. "

Exactly. And look at all the resources various navies around the world expend to rescue rich yachting gits who get themselves in trouble in the middle of nowhere, yet only recently have we started to hear of countries charging these people for the cost of rescue.


Ruth (tilltab) Ashworth | 1861 comments I didn't find it too hard to suspend my disbelief. I just assumed some time down the line the economy was all shiny and some technological advances got folks all excited about space again (because these trends come and go, and there is no reason people won't be 'edge of the seat excited about space travel again) and missions to Mars were planned and carried out.

And I imagined all kinds of social media that wasn't specifically mentioned, because folk were talking about how the whole world was watching, and I took my mental cue from there. I bet folk were listing Watney disco mixes and all sorts of other related things. The memes are a pleasure to imagine, but I'm rather glad they were not written down. It lets the mind play. Hmmm, though those sorts of things would be cool to include in a movie version.


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bob morrell (wallet55) | 5 comments I wondered about the money and the culture, but remember, this goes hand in hand. Assuming a US that has put all this money into not one but many Mars missions, you have to envision 1) a re-imaged and revitalized NASA. 2) a very different attitude towards government spending and or science. If you continue to think this through you have to imagine, given that it took the cold war the first time, what could have led to that. This seems out of the scope of the novel so I did not view it as a problem for the book.


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