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The Martian
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2014 Reads > TM: Emotions and character arcs (spoilers for the whole book)

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Andrew Knighton | 158 comments I really enjoyed this book, but I felt that there was something significant missing from it that took a lot of impact out of the ending, and that was emotions.

While we sometimes get nods to Watney's mental state, his sense of humour or of being doomed, the book never got into this to the point where I really felt it. This was tied into how little we learned about him as a person. Exploring more of his background and opinions might have given more of an emotional hook. Without more of his emotional state, I never got very emotionally invested. There weren't great highs and lows, there were just problems and their ingenious solutions.

I thought this also took a lot of the uncertainty and the impact out of the ending. I never doubted that he was going to survive due to the tone of the novel, so what was in question was how his experience would affect him and the others around him emotionally. Would he come out of this broken by loneliness? Reinvigorated and with renewed sense of purpose having survived the ordeal? That was never explored, and so I didn't feel any emotionally closure at the end. The ending felt abrupt and a bit flat.

I recognise that astronauts are probably selected for emotional stability among other characteristics, but still, I'd expect this long an ordeal to affect someone more mentally.

What did the rest of you think? Agree, disagree, think it would have bogged down the story?


message 2: by Walter (last edited May 04, 2014 04:45AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Walter Spence (walterspence) | 707 comments Andrew wrote: What did the rest of you think? Agree, disagree, think it would have bogged down the story?

I think it would have bogged down this particular story.

My impression is that the author wanted to tell a thrilling, yet lighthearted tale. A focus on Watney's struggles against a degrading mental state characterized by depression and/or worse would certainly be a legitimate novel, but it seemed to me that Weir wanted a more optimistic and hopeful outlook from his protagonist, which meant that the chief antagonist had to be not Watney's own mind, but his immediate environment.

Not that the alternative couldn't have been an equally compelling tale. Just a much different one.


Ruth (tilltab) Ashworth | 1840 comments I think that the mode of communicating the story kept it from getting overly emotional. Watney starts making a log of his experiences in hopes that people will discover his fate. Later, he was even more aware that others could look at his log. He would have tried to keep his emotions out of things to avoid upsetting his loved ones. I imagined the emotions were there, below the surface, though, yeah, I think they might have caused a little distance between the reader and the character. But I think mostly it was the right call for the story.


Dara (cmdrdara) | 2693 comments I kind of wish he turned a potato into this and talked to it. Wilson meets glaDOS.

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message 5: by Ruth (tilltab) Ashworth (last edited May 05, 2014 12:33PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ruth (tilltab) Ashworth | 1840 comments PotaDOS?


Dara (cmdrdara) | 2693 comments Yes! I would have gotten a big kick out of that.


Eric Mesa (djotaku) | 617 comments Andrew wrote: "I really enjoyed this book, but I felt that there was something significant missing from it that took a lot of impact out of the ending, and that was emotions.

While we sometimes get nods to Watne..."


A toughie. On the one hand it's rare for a hero's journey to end in the death of the hero. I think Weir did his best to do the Pixar thing where every time you think it's OK, victory is snatched away for the time being. On the other hand, he was essentially in solitary confinement for - was it 1 year or 1.5 years? I guess what makes his optimism (and lack of mental deterioration) valid is that he believed he would be able to make it until Ares 4. Now, if he missed Ares 4, he'd definitely go bonkers.

Emotionally, where I actually think the book misses the mark is with the crew. Someone - Beck's wife? I can't remember - is the proxy for what I think at least should have been a source of conflict: being in space for double-time. She mentions having to wait another two years to get laid. Which is funny and keeping with the tone of the book. But while I fully expect that a real life crew has solidarity and all that - there're private thoughts and public thoughts. Someone could have been feeling slightly resentful. I know, I know - Weird wrote a tight story that didn't meander. It was Mark's story, not the story of the crew. But I felt that was missing.

Also, after all the "Lewish will kill anyone so much as having a dirty thought about Johansen" - there wasn't much payoff to the reveal that she was shacking up with someone. However, I will say that I did enjoy the rare scifi story (especially one on a co-ed spaceship) that didn't get into the sexual relationships and politics. Did that perhaps make it less realistic? Maybe. But it was a welcome reprieve. By contrast, a book I can't remember the title to now by (I think) Harry Turtledove (or something like that) involves a mission to Mars in an alternate universe where there were martians. And the American crew only sent married couples so there was tension from people cheating on their spouses. The Russians, on the other hand (this book was written when there was still a Soviet Union) sent three guys and a woman and basically everyone slept with the woman. It was portrayed as completely consensual, but as an adult (read this in middle or early high school) I can see some unfortunate implications in the way the narrative went.


message 8: by E (new) - rated it 4 stars

E | 16 comments I thought about this as well when I got to the end of the book and realized I didn't actually know that much about the main character in a lot of ways. I felt like this actually worked though because it made it easier for him to be the "every man"...er, at least as much as a genius engineer/botanist/astronaut can be. However,(and I already talked about this on another thread) I would have liked it had there been an epilogue where we got to see the emotional toll of the ordeal once he had reached relative safety.


Heather | 28 comments I'm torn on this as well. At first I had a hard time with his seemingly lightheartedness, but ultimately it seemed that his particular personality deals with trauma by making jokes. I know people like that, who make more jokes as things get worse. It was fairly extreme here though and part of me wishes there was some acknowledgment of hopelessness. It may have backfired though and could have made the story too grim. Ultimately, I think I like Mark as he is in the book, boobie jokes and all. I can imagine a little sadness behind the jokes.


Paolo (ppiazzesi) | 51 comments I pretty much agree with the OP. Weir set out to tell a lighthearted adventure story where we know our lone astronaut will survive against all odds, and this is OK and it works, but I still feel like there was a missed opportunity of going into deeper questions about the the human condition.

And that potato is hilarious, thanks for the laugh.


message 11: by Dara (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dara (cmdrdara) | 2693 comments You are welcome. That's what I'm here for.


Sandi (sandikal) | 1212 comments I thought it was very emotional. Perhaps that was because of RC Bray's outstanding performance in the audiobook.


message 13: by David Sven (last edited May 08, 2014 04:20PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

David Sven (gorro) | 1582 comments I'm not into survival stories so much so getting into his emotional state would have just made it drag for me - but I get that if you ARE into survival stories you may be let down by the lack of focus on his emotional state. For me, the humour and lightheartedness as well as relatively short length and excellent audio narration kept me engaged in a book I would never normally pick up.

Having said all that there were a couple of emotional moments for me - one being when Mindy discovers he's alive and also when Watney finds out other people know he's alive.


message 14: by Skip (last edited May 09, 2014 11:51AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Skip | 517 comments I think it would have been more out of place if he had been very introspectively emotional about it. Astronauts are chosen because they can react calmly under great stress. Watney makes sure to keep himself occupied so he can't dwell on the facts of his circumstances. He makes a fairly conscious choice to keep from getting to up or down emotionally, until he gets to rocket. Even then, it isn't in his log, it's a third person view. And since so much of the book is his log we really don't know if "my back hurt" was code for "completely fell apart for a day or so".


Andrew Knighton | 158 comments Skip wrote: "And since so much of the book is his log we really don't know if "my back hurt" was code for "completely fell apart for a day or so"."

That's a really interesting point. I read Watney as an entirely reliable narrator because there wasn't anything overtly saying otherwise. But if you think about him as this buttoned down hero trying hard to keep everything under control then it would be easy to believe there are far worse things going on emotionally and he just doesn't want to admit them. I doubt that's Weir's intention, but it makes for an interesting way to think about the book.


John (Nevets) Nevets (nevets) | 1506 comments Now you got me thinking about the unreliable narrator. I also took it as being what you see is what you get. But at least in the audio book when it got to the very end in space the reader slowed down Marks speech and made him seem a bit out of it, while sill coming up with an idea. This could have been because he had just been knocked out, but it could have also been the overall state he was in at that point in time. It's just we didn't notice it before, because this is one of the few times we're seeing him directly from other peoples POV.

Like Andrew said, I'm not sure this was the authors intention, but it is a possibility.


Rob Secundus (quintessential_defenestration) | 1035 comments I agree with the OP that these shortcomings exist, but I'm not so sure they're shortcomings. This really isn't a character study. It's a season of MacGuyver set in space. From the start the reader primarily cares about a) seeing how MacWatney gets out of his next fix, and b) whatever quips he has in store for us. We don't really care about whether he lives or dies, because the pattern becomes clear pretty quickly- within a few paragraphs of disaster, watney always comes up with a solution. Just like we know macguyver won't die in a random episode. There's some tension at the end, but but only a little. A sad ending really just would never have fit with this book. We aren't directed to care about his emotional arc either-- again, it would be like watching macguyver turn a kitchen cabinet into a working helicopter and asking "but how does he feel about that helicopter?" If this was ever going to be that kind of story then we would have been alerted near the start. We would have seen hints of despair creeping around his perennial optimism. But the book didn't lead us that way, so we shouldn't have expected to end up that way.

Now, there's a major problem with the crew. It's not that they lack character arcs, but that they lack the two things this story is actually about: humor and interesting puzzles. The few jokes that weir attempts with the crew really<\i> fall flat. And they never have an interesting problem. Well, they do at the end, but the way they overcome up is simply to apply watney's solution on a larger scale. NASA also is flawed, as the jokes very rarely land, but they do at least have interesting problems.


To be clear, I'm not saying that you can't have deep, interesting character arcs in light reading. To continue the tv comparison, you can have Buffy The Vampire Slaysr quip and punch things and even burst into musical number all while conveying a deep and interesting story about this group of people growing into adulthood. I'm just saying that when a story makes it clear it's not going to try do that, the story is not at fault for going ahead and not doing that. And that doesn't make it a bad story either. Light stories have their merit.



message 18: by [deleted user] (new)

I'm about 100/280 pages into it, and so far, it's been a fun, amusing and very interesting read. I really hate Chemistry [barely got pass the one required course of it I was required to do in first year], but I actually liked reading the events leading up to the Great Hydrazine Scare, lol.

But on a whole? I don't think I'm emotionally invested. Anything can happen and I wouldn't really get wrenched. The only moment so far that's hooked me is when NASA learnt he's alive.

On a whole, though? It's not bothering me because I expected it. Based on everything I heard before reading it, I assumed it was a very event driven book, and so far it's been precisely that.


message 19: by Arni (new) - rated it 4 stars

Arni Finished it yesterday and agree with OP. It's a fun, at times exciting book and I liked how much detail it goes into regarding the science. But there's basically no emotion. As a result the book never gets under your skin. Which is a shame, because all the other stuff was really good. With some sort of emotional anchor - a kid back on earth, *something* - the book would be so much better.


message 20: by Phil (new) - rated it 5 stars

Phil | 1126 comments I guess I'm just a big softy but I had tears in my eyes at least three times which is problematic since I do most of my reading at work. All three times were happy moments in the book. I guess the main character in a book doesn't have to get all blubbery for me to have an emotional connection to him.


Stephanie Griffin | 49 comments Arni wrote: "Finished it yesterday and agree with OP. It's a fun, at times exciting book and I liked how much detail it goes into regarding the science. But there's basically no emotion. As a result the book ne..."

No emotion?! The man is looking at his own death in the face! The story evoked tears, laughter and exhilaration from me. A rare thing in the books I read.


message 22: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben (bennewton_1) | 253 comments I found it very emotional when it switched back to everyone at NASA at the end.

The book is very analytical, especially in the peril overload parts that have been discussed elsewhere, but I wouldn't say that it's unemotional.


message 23: by Arni (new) - rated it 4 stars

Arni Stephanie, yeah, it's an exciting book and I was rooting for the guy throughout. But the author isn't bothered with emotions. There are minor examples, yes, when Mark establishes contact with Earth and cries. But there's nothing approaching an attempt to flesh out his emotional reaction to being stuck alone in a hostile environment for a year and a half. He just wise cracks. Which is funny, don't get me wrong, but it left me unsatisfied when the book was done. It's not a bad book (gave it 4 stars), but it could have been so much better had the author explored or even included in more than a cursary fashion an emotional and psychlogical dimension.


Stephanie Griffin | 49 comments Arni - I think Mark doesn't want to go to his emotional spot. He's a trained astronaut. Trained to use his logic and not get emotional, especially in emergency situations. His concentration on survival beats out getting overly distraught. That he does cry shows us he is human underneath. He doesn't want to crack so perhaps he uses humor to defuse that?


message 25: by [deleted user] (new)

Stephanie wrote: "Arni - I think Mark doesn't want to go to his emotional spot. He's a trained astronaut. Trained to use his logic and not get emotional, especially in emergency situations. His concentration on surv..."

I finished it the other day, and I agree with you. There's constant mention that space is dangerous, and it's also mentioned once or twice about the type of people NASA select to be astronauts. I think that's why the book isn't very character oriented. And if you check it, the few times he's broken down and appeared emotional are when he's more or less completely safe. Or as close to that as he ever gets.


Joe Informatico (joeinformatico) | 888 comments This is something I encounter frequently with the technothriller genre. The author has done incredibly in-depth research into the main areas and disciplines at the heart of the plot, but often what happens is that every other aspect that isn't as well-researched or investigated pales in comparison to the main stuff. To use an analogy, if you take very good care of a statue in the middle of a room, constantly dusting and polishing it, but don't show nearly as much care to the floors, walls, and other furniture, the dust stands out that much more. So if the author is focused on the technological aspects of the story, I often find that the human aspects of the story--characters, institutions, and societies--are glaring in their research shortfalls and realism.

I've brought up in other threads that a lot of the Earth-side plot elements in The Martian seem anachronistic. But I give those a pass, because the plot is a very straightforward thriller: man is in a desperate fix, he and his colleagues all want him out of that fix, and they do several smart or desperate things to get him out of that fix. Most readers can understand Watney's primal desire to survive, and his friends and colleagues' desire to assist him, and Weir is giving us the technical details of their efforts. Whereas I find with some political or military technothrillers, the motivations and behaviour of characters and institutions are of direct importance to the plot, but they're written as stock archetypes. It's harder for me to appreciate how accurate and realistic the technical details of the technology are when the plot revolves around the actions of people who don't behave like actual human beings.


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