Andy Weir: The Martian

Weir, Andy (2013), The Martian, Gollancz
ISBN 9781101905005

DSC_1911So I have become a bit of a science fiction fan in the past decade. I mean, I’ve always liked it, but it’s only fairly recently that I started reading more of it. My awakening, if we want to call it that, came when I first encountered the work of Samuel Delany, and so my early reading was more in the New Wave vein, plus contemporary weird science fiction. It took a while to read more broadly, but if you look at my reviews, it’s books by China Miéville, Adam Roberts plus that smelly thing you found behind your couch. It’s no accident that I haven’t read John Scalzi (who is fantastic) until this year. All this is to say that I’m a bit worried I might be a bit of a snob when it comes to science fiction. Not that I’m not willing to call trash what it is, but some books just make me apprehensive. The Martian is one such book. It was recommended on the internet as a ‘scientifically accurate’ book that would ‘make a great movie.’ All the comments on it stressed the accurate nature of its descriptions and the technical obsessiveness of its tale of a Martian Robinsonade. I evaded getting the book for months until I found it among my birthday presents. And as it turns out, I was both wrong and right. The Martian is damn, damn good. A book that I assumed to be movie fodder, it’s surprisingly clever in its structure, deft in its characterization and written in surprisingly effective prose. At the same time, for an exhaustively researched book that makes living on Mars, even just a few hundred days, believable and plausible in a way that even Kim Stanley Robinson hasn’t managed, I was profoundly struck by the novel’s utter lack of imagination and vision. The effectiveness of the prose style is achieved through a kind of sleight of hand – Weir has his protagonist write a diary, in the style that’s current among Internet denizens today. The voice of his protagonist is clear and recognizable – because we know that person. Many of his early readers are, in fact, that kind of person, a white male narcissist. Which, to be fair, is the central character in many Robinsonades. Weir, however, stops there. He makes no use of the form, displays no real sense of the traditions he works in and squanders the potential of both genres he works in, science fiction and the Robinsonade. And yet, despite all this, do I recommend the book? Of course I do. Ultimately, it’s a big bag of fun and you’ll remember all its good parts for a long time. A vivid, exciting read. And smart.

DSC_1914It’s more clever than it is actually intelligent, though. We don’t get the sense that Weir has thought about his form beyond coming up with a fun idea and working out the practical details. A comparison with a similar science fiction novel, Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust shows us both the strengths and weaknesses of his approach. The Martian is much more immediate, and its world unfolds in a much more palpable and believable fashion for the reader. At the same time, Weir’s secondary characters are all cardboard cutout caricatures. Not having seen the movie, I assume that losing the voice of the man stranded on Mars, Mark Watney, and getting more (quite literally) fleshed out versions of the other characters, the overall depth and verisimilitude of the story’s characters is more balanced. Weir’s big sticking point is the science, and he applies it well to create -and sustain- excitement. He is quite excellent at adding new elements to his world, new bits of knowledge, just at the right time to catch falling arcs of suspense and create new ones. Much like classic 19th century works of fiction, this book was written in small installments and you can tell by its structure. A Fall of Moondust is just as technical (although probably not as plausible today as it was then), and just as exciting, but instead of consisting mainly of one character’s ramblings, it’s an ensemble piece, with a large section of moon-inhabiting humanity involved in the accident and the eventual rescue. I’m not totally spoiling the book because, much like The Martian, it’s a story that is predicated on the excitement of following along. There is no abyss of unknowability, no postmodern darkness here. In my Scalzi review I mentioned the push by reactionaries for a more obviously and directly enjoyable science fiction and The Martian is really it. It might seem that Clarke’s book is an obvious predecessor – but that’s only superficially true. If you read Clarke’s work you know he doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions – so why is this such a straightforward book? I always assumed that Clarke was aware of the genre he was working in and its traditions, the Robinson Crusoe line of writing, and instead of making the easy choice of just transposing the situation onto a different, more spherical, kind of island, he leaned on something that was actually rather common in old fashioned science fiction, contra Puppies, the idea of looking at a future society.

DSC_1918Make no mistake, Clarke doesn’t offer us any kind of grand vision of the future either, but there is a broader sense of community, of where he thought society might go in the time allotted between his time and the time he assumed we’d be living in lunar colonies. Unless I missed a major element (in which place, please comment), there’s really no obvious reason -apart from the actual technology- that The Martian couldn’t happen next year. Drop us the necessary technology under the Christmas tree (please?) and this story could happen in January. There’s no inherent reason why this has to be on Mars or in the future. My complaint here is similar to what bothered me about Charles Stross’ mediocre look at the near future, except it’s a bit more frustrating and that’s because while Stross draws on contemporary traditions that have limited potential as is, and he lacks the punch/interest to push them beyond what they are, Andy Weir is working in a line of writing that has, almost from the moment of its inception, produced interesting and exciting literature. Having man isolated from others, or a selection of humanity separated from the rest, this motif has led to some of the most memorable and powerful books. The ur-text of the genre, Daniel Defoe’s novel, is already much more complicated than you’d think. Defoe already has his stranded man tied into some important questions of his day. The question of owning another human being, selling them, how it ties into wealth and colonial narratives are, unexpectedly for anyone who hasn’t read the book, raised. Crusoe is sold himself into slavery, escapes with the help of a black boy, and then, deliberately declines selling the boy into slavery (but gives in and hands him over for a three year period of enforced labor) because “he had assisted me so faithfully in procuring my own [liberty].” Just a short time later, he is convinced to embark on an expedition to buy and trade “negroes” for rich plantation owners. It is this trip that puts Crusoe on that island. After his escape, he returns to his “colony” which in his absence has become plentiful and Crusoe, almost by accident, has become a rich man. Intentionally or not, Defoe offers us a discourse on freedom, and on the way colonialism was built on the self-interest of the English despite knowing full well its harmful effects. Books afterwards kept adding to the debate. Frequently, they used the situation between Crusoe and Friday to illuminate power dynamics. Michel Tournier’s book is probably the most accomplished take on that. The Martian completely rejects this tradition, and declines absolutely to offer any sort of commentary or context. We even get odd, borderline racist, but definitely contemporary (for us) pieces of slang. Multiple times, a rough construction is described as “ghetto” by the white, definitely not “ghetto” protagonist of the book. If any thinking has gone into his book concerning contexts and futurism, it’s that the near future is just as terrible in terms of racial construction as the present. Harsh pessimism, if so, Mr. Weir.

DSC_1913But there’s more. The central conceit of Defoe’s book is (along the line of many books of his time) that the story is the journal of a real person and the book merely “a just history of facts.” The diary/journal has been enduring as one of the most interesting literary genres. Some takes on Crusoe’s story, like Coetzee’s masterful novel Foe, have examined the epistemological situation. What’s truth in narrative? The diary as a whole is interesting, as it is splayed wide between authenticity and artificiality. A few decades ago, in an essay that still holds up marvelously, Felicity Nussbaum painted a picture of the diary as a pre-modern attempt at constructing a public self. That explains why women, whose writing had been relegated to the margins for a long time, used the diaries to gain purchase for autobiographical narratives. One of the interesting aspects of the way The Martian uses journals as the primary way to record the story is that these diaries are half way between journals and letters. They are written with the express purpose of being preserved for people to find in case Mark Watney’s goose is cooked and his life on Mars ends ignominiously. This method would explain why so much of this diary is a performance. Stranded alone – one thinks of William Golding’s Pincher Martin as a particularly brutal variety – does not bring out the sadness, isolation, alienation of brutality one might expect or fear. In fact, Watney, isolated for hundreds of days, is as upbeat on his last day as he is on his first. This could be due to the performance aspect of the journals-turned-letters, a way, say, of putting up a facade for those coming after him. But there’s no undercutting of this attitude in the later scenes of the book where we see him interact with other people and we are privy to their points of view. In all the research that Andy Weir has undertaken to make his book realistic and interesting – one wonders how much of it was spent looking at anthropology, sociology and psychology. I do agree, as I said elsewhere, that bleak writing has become a tired and tiring cliché in and of itself, but the buzzing happiness in the pages of The Martian can be a bit grating.

This is a book that, carefully, intentionally, thoroughly, has NOTHING to say about people, the future, emotions, society – anything, really, that doesn’t involve the growing of potatoes on a wasteland planet. What it does express is a sense of social isolation of a certain class of citizen and writer today that exceeds the blindness of slave trader Crusoe. Crusoe was aware of how terrible it is to lose one’s freedom when he embarked on his slave trading mission. Defoe wrote this into Robinson Crusoe. Like many Europeans during colonialism, he just didn’t consider the treatment of black people a moral imperative that was more important than developing and growing wealth. Mark Watney – and by extension, Andy Weir – don’t even have that level of reflection. And yet – it’s such an expertly written book. The prose is never great, but always at least serviceable. The book is captivating and fun, and for a week after finishing it, I walked about town, partly living on Mars in my head. The Martian could have been more – but it’s a sign of the times that it is not. And what it is, is quite a lot.

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Talking Trash: Religion + Scholarship

Me, as I am typing this nonsense straight into wordpress at this very moment.

Me, as I am typing this nonsense straight into wordpress at this very moment.

So as you can maybe tell, looking at my reviews this year I decided to just review a ton of things, just to write some non-academic things here and there, and sometimes I have no poems to write, nothing to add to the novel, and these days, I also run out of books, sometimes. I will still answer emails, so you are welcome to do that. That said, I decided I will now and then sit down to write a few hundred words on *something* – almost certainly connected to my PhD work. Who knows. Also, I am typing this straight into wordpress so Lord have Mercy on us all.

So the topic now is religion. My PhD topic concerns the role of religion in the work of three American poets. Part of the reason my work has taken so long is that I noticed early on, that this is an odd topic. For me, it seemed instantly interesting. All three poets, John Berryman, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, make heavy, informed, ind-depth use of the traditions of Christian writing. Not just poets (like all poets who grew of writerly age during the age of New Criticism, they appropriately revere George Herbert and GM Hopkins), but prose, theology even. This is not connected to faith. Central writers on Berryman have convincingly connected his faith to his mental issues, and at any point, it is hard to pin down Robert Lowell’s faith once he started writing poetry. Even his brief period of ardent Catholicism displays, as was most recently shown by Gelpi, strong strains of Puritan theology and thought. Elizabeth Bishop, meanwhile, was just an regular atheist. And yet, she was widely read in Christian theology, reading writers as diverse as Kierkegaard, St. Augustine and Henri-Frédéric Amiel. That last one is, if you don’t know him, a Swiss writer, poet and philosopher who’s mainly known today for writing long winded, very religious, very self-pitying journals. Journals that are frequently brilliant, but still. She carried around books by Teresa of Avila (I slightly overemphasize that in my thesis) and has read St. Ignatious of Loyola, who most of you mainly know through the Barthes book, I suppose.

Yet books on the three writers, especially on Bishop and Berryman were oddly silent on the issue. These writers were clearly, obviously influential on these poets and yet – nothing. For me, that was a great topic. Obvious + under-researched? Ripe for plucking, is what I say. Well, once my supervisor convinced me to not write on Sylvia Plath. That was Plan A, I’ll admit. So I did, and I presented my topic in conversations and seminars and at conferences – and something weird happened. People always assumed that I myself was religious. I’m not. I am an atheist, although the annoying people on the internet have so many distinctions on that that I should more properly refer to myself as a “atheist agnostic.” Let’s just go with atheist. I do use mysticism and religious references in my poetry (click here, you know you want to), but that’s it. For me, texts are texts, and I’m writing about one text influencing another text. That is not, however, how audiences and people I talk to felt about it. This is how I discovered why the topic is so under-researched. The few people who do work on it tend to be religious themselves. A handful of years ago (after I started work on my thesis), Tom Rogers wrote the *only* book on the topic (God of Rescue, Peter Lang, 2013). I wrote a review of it for a literary journal but I think it’s print only. It’s flawed but thorough and well argued. Tom Rogers, meanwhile, is pretty religious from what I know. And of the two (TWO) books on Bishop and religion, one sort of dismisses Bishop’s use of theology as always critical and satirical, and the other, by Cheryl Walker, which, again, draws on a rich background of research, is written by a religious writer.

The simple reason why people assume that I am religious is because those are the only people who work in my field and zero in on this topic. It absolutely confused me at the time, and I still have difficulties understanding why non-religious critics today don’t really engage with religious texts that influence literature. Bonnie Costello, who is a brilliant, brilliant critic, mentions a lot of the theological writers in throwaway remarks in her writings on Bishop; she would rankle at seeing anyone treat Hopkins or Moore or Stevens or any of the other ‘normal’ influences on Bishop with such brief remarks. Or, indeed, if someone had been this quick to dismiss an important theological text in analyzing Donne, Herbert or Hopkins. Yet, religious writers are different, somehow, as an influence on non-religious writing. It’s maddening. Just you go and find me cogent recent-ish essays on the influence of Catholicism and the Bible on Baudelaire. I found a bunch of things, but the only in-depth, excellent analyses are turn-of-the-century (last century, that is) French books. It’s not just Bishop and Berryman (Lowell is relatively well served, in part because of how explicit his early critics, from Tate to Ransom and Jarrell, made those influences. In my thesis, he serves to complete a picture, but the weight of the argument is in the chapters on Bishop and Berryman (and Schwartz)), it’s plenty of other writers, as well. Baudelaire, for one. And you know what makes it worse? That religious writers are frequently a bit nutty about it. Not Rogers, but Cheryl Walker, for example, has whole chapters where she tries to convince us that Bishop wasn’t really an atheist. That Bishop was really at least a tiny bit religious. This helps no one. It doesn’t help Bishop scholarship, it doesn’t help Walker’s argument, and it doesn’t help other scholars (ME) who try to write on the topic. We all get lumped in with the nutty kind of writer. Just yesterday I was reading a chapter on Anne Bradstreet, in a mid-1980s book on the Puritans. And it was full of “Our Lord”s and egregious amounts of judgments on faith in a book that was supposed to be all about textual analysis (and wasn’t actually bad at it!). Bill Barnwell, before the demise of Grantland, had a NFL column called “thank you for not coaching” – there should be something like this for religious scholars. Rogers does this well. Another great example is Alfred Corn’s big essay on Bishop which is informed by a religious background, incredibly insightful, and yet does not proselytize or assume its readers are (or should become) Christians themselves. For all the others: compartmentalize, please. You’re making all of us look bad.

It frustrates me endlessly. So in my thesis, when I started it many moons, 4 breakdowns and a hospital stay ago, I planned at first to just *show* the influence and explicating it. I had chapters outlined, say, on the structure of the Psalms and how the structure of Berryman’s late poetry corresponds to that. But I recognized that, if I don’t want this to read as exibit XVI in the ‘religious’ tradition of poetry scholarship, I had to sharpen the focus on what it is that this influence brought into view. And that’s, i found, (auto)biography. All three writers have struggled with personas, with writing about the/a self. And for all three writers, religious influences have helped them achieve it. Bishop has letters making that connection between autobiography and her reading of theology clear, with Berryman it’s implicit, and as I said, with Lowell, critics have pointed the way. This change meant I had to shift my research and change chapters and outlooks. I read a ton of books on auto/biography. I think my thesis is better this way, but the frustration remains. Also, I broadened my research so much that I now have unused outlines of papers on “Bishop and Brazil,” “Bishop and Gertrude Stein” etc etc. that do not intersect with my thesis at all.

Thank you for listening. There will be a review tomorrow-ish, maybe. If you want to support me, click here. My computer is dying a swift death, so any help is appreciated. If you want me to read poetry somewhere, write me. I’m probably free. 🙂

Enthusiasms and me (monologue)

I have, throughout the past year, received various complaints about my review style, and while I can’t do anything about my English or the length of individual reviews, I can at least explain why I seem to bubble with enthusiasm about books so much, unless I am absolutely negative about them, like I tend to be in respect to Paul Auster’s books. There is a shared perception among some readers that there is no middle path with me. I would disagree, pointing to reviews like the one I wrote of Ander Monson’s Other Electricities, but why not concede the point for now. The fact of the matter is not that I try to be as positive as possible about a book, it’s that I am a person chiefly governed by enthusiasms, or that’s how I like to see myself. It is probably the one thing I really like about myself and I appreciate it in others, as well. I get shouty, excited and even a tad stuttery over things I love (in some Bookbabble episodes you can hear me getting excited). It doesn’t matter whether it is my considered opinion that these things are, in fact excellent, and indeed, I frequently do not hold the same exalted opinion of some of these books or writers any longer, but that’s not important. I think genuine excitement over books or music or the sun coming up at 5 in the morning, it’s so valuable, and in writing about books I decided against curbing this instinct of mine to praise excessively. Because art is worth exalting, worth praising. So am I misleading what readers I have? I don’t think so. I think my reviews hold up reasonably well (all things and limitations considered), even of books that I would have a more negative opinion now, because I think the basic descriptions of the books are sound, or as sound as I can manage them to be. This is a secondary concern to me though. I stand by what I said earlier: enthusiasms are important to me. I am easily enthused. I found an old Odetta record today that I haven’t listened to for years and then the mailman brought a mangled used copy of Dimitri Obolensky’s The Byzantine Commonwealth, as well as a clean copy of the Charles Olson/Frances Boldereff correspondence and I was giddy half the evening. With women or men I fall suddenly intensely in love and just as suddenly out of it (usually at the point when I seem most ‘in it’). That’s just the way it is. I love people, books and art. There’s a supremely gifted friend of mine who’s an astonishing artist, currently traveling through Europe, and if I could, I would rave about her art everyday to everyone on the interwebs who would listen. The same is true for a fantastically good writer of (mainly) horror fiction, who I am also lucky to call a friend. I like to think I’m a very enthusiastic person whenever I can manage to be. So often, I am not, silent, quiet, hollow. Enthusiasm is preferable. Books are great things to be enthusiastic about. I love books. I write this in my study, which is a room lined with books, there are books everywhere here. Poke me and I will talk about all kinds of books all day. I study books, writing my Ph.D. about poetry, and I admire booksellers like few other professions on this planet (see also this recent post). Look at a good book, not a great book, just a good book. See what a marvel it is. How it is made, how it works, how its words fit it just right. And great books…they are something else. Next to my computer right now is my copy of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Clarel. I don’t have the words to describe the love I have for books like this. There is so much shit in the world. But here there are books. And outside there are people, each of them a marvel, too. And elsewhere are works of art. Take a moment to look up the work of Lucien Freud who died today. Take a pause. Look at it. It’s night here. In two hours, the sun will rise. There are so many things to love, so much to feel enthusiastic about. So what if I don’t feel the same excitement about Hilde Domin’s poetry, Notwist’s music or that girl’s smile that I used to have. How could I have known at the time. At the time, I was giddy with excitement, rosy with delight and glowing with enthusiasm. This will happen again and again. As it should. Stop complaining.

“If it’s all about money, there’s just better things to sell”

Two weeks ago, I mailed a book of poetry to a friend; it was a book I had owned for many years, but I wasn’t sure how long exactly, which is why I looked inside, and saw the notation of a book shop in Heidelberg, which used to be a fantastic place to buy English books. They sold new books and used ones, it was a tiny bookshop with a huge collection of poetry, and its owner cared deeply about literature (rather than revenue); I owe much of my early reading in English to the owner and sales clerks in that bookshop, who always somehow managed to suggest the right kind of book for me. Like many smaller bookshops in Heidelberg, this one closed down many years ago. When I saw that a Facebook friend had posted the video below, about a man selling books out of his apartment, on his page, I was reminded of the small Heidelberg bookshops that introduced me to literature. Bookshops are not regular businesses, are they? In my case, they were places where you learned about a vast literary world, which could well change your life. It was from bookshops that I learned to love poetry, and I can still go to my shelves and pull out books of poetry that were important for my understanding of art and life, and see, in the front or the back, a small sticker, a stamp or the carefully scribbled numbers that evoke to me, to this day, the smells, sounds and words from each of these book shops. Another dear (French) friend of mine wants to open, against all odds, a bookshop within the next year or two, and I have no words to express how much I admire her attempt to do it.

Tell me I’m an idiot

Today a commenter on my blog, in response to my review of Hwang Sok-Yong’s “The Guest”, wrote

Did you really read this book? The christian characters in the story are protestants, not catholics, and this has a very important significance in the korean historical context.

THis is an exceedingly stupid mistake to make, and a huge one at that. I have not, I think, made mistakes of a similar magnitude before, but since I write most of my reviews from notes, with the books not at hand and my poor memory as sole guide, I am prone to make mistakes like that.

So here goes: if I’m being an idiot in my reviews, please tell me. You win…something. I’m asking this because I know that some people have read the review in question and read the reviewed book. I would really appreciate a head-up next time. I’m an idiot. I need your help.

For really helpful comments I offer used books. Good ones, too.

As for this review, I’m waiting for my sister to return me my copy and I will then rewrite the whole review. Until then, it stays, shameful as it is.

Hey why aren’t you writing anything on your blog? Lazy much?

After having had the above, in some variations, emailed to me a few times, here’s my story: I’m sick. When I’m sick, I write badly, and can barely read. I lie back and play games on my computer.

And this is one of the best songs of the 1980s. Yeah. Fuck me I’m sick.