Another world

Writing complicates your relationship with everything you read. The more I tell stories, the harder it becomes to suspend disbelief and perceive a story as an organic reality, and not the product of another mind. The author is present in every turn of the tale, an ungoverned god who is willing to torment characters and twist reality for the sake of a few pages' diversion. 

I try to resist, but it has become increasingly difficult. Enjoying a story is less a matter of immersing myself, and more of a meeting of minds. I recognize and admire good craftsmanship, and I frown a little as I see the writer's hand move pieces from behind the shimmering tableau. 

I recently finished Andy Weir's The Martian. It's probably the "hardest" hard sci-fi I've read in a long time, meticulously researched and compellingly plausible. It follows an astronaut who's inadvertently left behind during an emergency evacuation of a Martian mission. Injured, believed dead by his colleagues, and with no way to contact Earth, his prospects seem hopeless. He has at his disposal a shelter and all the technology that was abandoned on the planet's surface... but not nearly enough food to last until the next Mars mission is scheduled to arrive. 

The Martian does one thing exceptionally well: it maroons its hero in a seemingly insurmountable situation, and shows how he assembles a plan to survive. He faces repeated, overwhelming threats, and develops solutions that are elegant and often ingenious. 

But as I read, I began to miss something: introspection. We learn virtually nothing about the protagonist's life on earth, what he misses, what he's fighting to return to. Similarly, although he goes into tremendous detail about the technology around him, there's very little description of the surface of Mars.  You might point out that he's simply not an introspective guy, and he's far too focused on the business of survival to comment on the frozen desert in which he finds himself. Fair enough. But I doubt that if you could spend a solitary year in the great waste of a distant planet, the most isolated human being in the history of the species, without that emptiness looking into you as well. The Martian might have been an interplanetary Walden in addition to a satisfying survival-adventure tale.

And that's the critical phrase: might have been. It wasn't, and people love it just the way it is. The movie (starring Matt Damon) is coming soon to a theater near you. The might have been is the voice I can't suppress, the voice that tries to rewrite everything I read. It runs down branching corridors and comes back breathlessly suggesting endless alternatives. Many, I suspect, are foolhardy; none can really be said to be better or worse. They're different books from other universes.