Thoughts On Two Books
An astronaut. Stranded. Alone. His survival dependent upon equipment and materials meant for six people, as well as his intelligence and his engineering and biology backgrounds. The Martian is an interesting book: one that I would recommend—especially to teenagers—but one that I am, ultimately, somewhat disappointed in.
To be clear, any first published novel is a thing to be lauded, and Andy Weir brings us a sometimes compelling account of survival and the challenges that humans would face on Mars. His principle narrator is Mark Watney and, through a series of unfortunate events, he is left behind on Mars when his crew-mates leave him behind, presuming that his has been killed in the storm that precipitated their departure from the planet. As a narrator, Watney is personable and intelligent, and Weir uses this to great advantage when presenting the reader with quite a lot of information about the science underlying some of the technology and strategies that Watney uses to stay alive. There is actual math discussed in the novel! But fear not, Weir presents the math and physics and biology sections through Watney’s personable tone and I was never bored or uninterested. In fact, for much of the opening sections of the book, I was riveted.
This ability to balance narrative with science is one of the reasons I would highly recommend it to younger readers as it could possibly excite them about the importance of science and math, especially as connected to one’s very survival when going into space and exploring other worlds. However, Weir’s narrator also has limitations as a character and as a structural device. Chief among these is his essential cheerfulness. Watney survives for over a year, alone, under harsh conditions and in an environment that is always only millimeters away from killing him but he displays very little emotional struggle or even physical struggles throughout. No matter how strong, smart, capable, or optimistic a person might be, they are not going to live through something like this without some serious existential and emotional fallout. Yet Weir never delves into this side of Watney’s existence on Mars. He never once gives the reader a vision of Watney’s emotional challenges, nor does he allow his narrator room to reflect on his life. We get occasional mentions of boredom and frustration, but that’s about all. As I read, this flatness of character seemed to become more pronounced. By about half way through the novel, I found myself wanting a lot more in terms of character development than was being offered.
I also kept forgetting just how difficult every single activity would have been for Watney. Granted, if Weir went into detail about Watney suiting up every time the character went outside of the habitat, the novel could easily get bogged down in repetition and pointless detail. However, there is a real element of verisimilitude missing from the novel because the reader forgets the inherent alienness of the environment for large chunks of the novel. Furthermore, we never get a sense of Watney’s hunger as he is rationing his food, or the repercussions of several injuries that he experiences. Except for one or two mistakes, Watney’s cognitive abilities always seem to function perfectly, unmarked by emotional trauma or somatic experience. As the book continued, this lack of deeper characterization and the missed opportunity to explore emotional challenges grew more and more apparent to me and I found myself growing disappointed as a reader. However, as I mentioned earlier, I would highly recommend this book to younger readers who might get carried away in the sheer adventure and survival challenges that are presented. Indeed, part of my disappointment may stem from the simple fact that the book I read immediately before The Martian was Jeff VanderMeer’s stunning new novel, Annihilation.
Annihilation is not a long book. Nor is it epic in the way that so much of our popular culture has become. There are no worlds saved and no Big Bad’s defeated. VanderMeer is content to let the world he creates remain as much a mystery at the end of the novel as it is in the beginning. Much like life itself. You learn some things, you forget other things, but in the end the mystery of it all is never—and especially narratively—solved. The plot is simple: a small team of people go into a mysterious area that appeared some time ago, an area with properties and life forms that are distinctly alien to our world. Several things happen. There are wonders and mysteries. Violence occurs. Our point of view is first-person and limited as the story is told from the perspective of a woman known only as “the Biologist”. This is a book that, unlike Weir’s The Martian, is deeply situated within the mind and emotional landscape of its narrator. Plot is tenuous and, in some ways, tertiary to the two main impulses of the book: character study and exploration of the wonders and dangers of this alien world that has emerged in an area of our own world. You can probably tell that I found this a much more satisfying novel.
It is both true and banal to note that all good literature, regardless of genre, explores what it means to be human. However, I was struck by VanderMeer’s masterful use of a fantastic and weird landscape to serve as a scaffold for a truly moving and revelatory examination of his narrator and her life. Perhaps it is her feeling of isolation from other people that hooked me, or the power of VanderMeer’s language, which manages the trick of being poetic without being flowery and always consistently in the Biologist’s own voice. There is a fierceness and power to Annihilation and the book, very much like “Area X” in which it takes place, resists rational order and operates in the gut and on the body.
“[W]hen you see beauty in desolation,” the Biologist says, “it changes something inside you. Desolation,” she continues, “tries to colonize you.” In the end, Annihilation seems, to me, a novel about reclaiming oneself from the desolation caused by one’s own life, and doing so in the strangest of circumstances. It is just this sense of desolation that I find missing in Weir’s novel. Watney is infinitely more likable than the Biologist, but the Biologist has far more to say about what it means to be human. Of course, in many ways it is entirely unfair to compare the two books. Weir and VanderMeer are writing in very different styles, as well as being at very different places in their writing careers. They have only been placed together simply because I read one immediately after the other. Of course, my thoughts on these reveal more about me as a reader—even as a person—than they represent an objective critique of the novels themselves.1 In the end, while I believe that Annihilation is the more intriguing, and yes in some ways better novel, I would recommend both to any science fiction fan.