I suggested that if Difficult SF had rules, they were to be realistic in depicting people and relationships, and concerned with good (not necessarily showy) writing.
Then Matt asked:
Is The Martian Difficult SF? It’s certainly rigorous, to the point that Andy Weir wrote software to plan launch schedules to work out when he had to set it to allow them to take potatoes for Thanksgiving (and then ran a competition based on who could work it out). It’s cognizant of the realities of the world—the Chinese space agency plays an important role, and the cast at NASA is diverse. But Mark Watney is inhumanly cheerful and resilient, and deliberately so—Weir didn’t want the novel to be about a man breaking down on Mars, but a man surviving and escaping. That’s fine as an artistic choice, and it made for a very entertaining book and film, but it isn’t “emotionally plausible.”
Great question. I loved the book. I loved its protagonist Mark Watney’s voice, and I inhaled it more quickly than any other book I read between Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 and Liz Hand’s Hard Light. (Quick test: am I reading the book while brushing my teeth? If so, I can’t put it down.) Moreover, I think it did just about everything that Andy Weir wanted it to do. To my mind, The Martian was thus artistically successful, and commercially successful too—but was it Difficult?
Matt was right: Mark Watney is inhumanly resilient and cheerful, and that’s a valid artistic choice, but not a Difficult one.
I did like the Earth politics, but I’m not sure they went far enough to be Difficult: the “just let him die” contingent seems to knuckle under quite easily, nobody’s leaking to the media to undercut other interest groups, the US President doesn’t put the kibosh on the Chinese involvement even though it makes the US look weak, and so on. But more than that, none of the Earth characters seem to have rich emotional lives—they’re described entirely in terms of their roles and functions. It’s absolutely a valid artistic choice, and one that made the book more of what it wanted to be, but it wasn’t a Difficult choice.
Also, Andy Weir’s writing seems to me to be functional rather than beautiful. And I don’t think he intended it to be literary in tone, so that’s not a criticism either.
The Martian is a great read, and a book I frequently recommend, but it’s not Difficult SF and it doesn’t want to be.
(Thanks to Matt for letting me break the Cone of Silence and use his questions for my blog.)
[2016-05-13: I’ve added a followup post here.]