"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Classroom Edition: Dumb-Ass Fiddling with a Smart-Ass Book

Susan Ohanian

When I received a promo piece announcing the Penguin/Random House publication of a Classroom Edition of Andy Weir’s The Martian, with “classroom-appropriate language and discussion questions and activities,” I immediately ordered the book. A Wall Street Journal reviewer had already called the regular text “Brilliant. . . a celebration of human ingenuity (and) the purest example of real-science sci-fi for many years. . . utterly compelling.” complete with “classroom appropriate language,” so why, I asked myself, was a classroom edition needed.

Of course if I’d read the original book, I wouldn't have asked the question. Here’s how The Martian opens:

                                               The Book                                            Classroom Edition   
                                               I’m pretty much fucked                        I’m pretty much screwed.

In the Q &A in the Classroom Edition of the The Martian, Andy Weir is asked if he has “anything in common with your wise-cracking hero Mark Watney.” Weir replies, “I’m the same level of smart-ass as he is. It was a really easy book to write; I just had him say what I would say. Thus, the expression smart-ass appears on page 377 of a book sanitized for classroom use, a book  that relentlessly excises ‘ass’ from the preceding pages. Editors fiddling to make the bestseller suitable for student eyes insist that the hero gets his ‘”butt” out of bed, not his “ass.” The editors do allow the hero to refer to himself once as “such a dumb-ass” and “long-ass trips” stays intact, but “We’d look like assholes” becomes “like jackasses” and “my half-assed handiwork” becomes “incompetent handiwork.”

Andy Weir's use of “fuck” as a very deliberate stylistic device throughout the text puts editorial refiners into overdrive. Substituting “screwed” for “fucked” continues apace along with some elegant variation.

    profound desire to just fucking die                                      profound desire to just die
    So yeah, I’m fucked                                                             So yeah. I’m screwed.
    Fuck that.                                                                            That would be a bad idea.
    I’m fucked, and I’m gonna die.                                            I’m screwed, and I’m gonna die.
    I’m really fucking sick of being in this rover                       I’m really really sick of being in this rover.
    What the fuck is wrong with you?                                      What is wrong with you?
    fucked with                                                                          tinkered with
    heavy motherfuckers                                                            insanely heavy
    What the fuck                                                                       What the hell
    Go fuck yourself                                                                   Bite me
    Fuck me raw                                                                         Whoa. . . okay
    Fuck                                                                                      Crap

And so on and so on. The F-Word isn’t the only one mashed up by editorial fiddling. Here’s a sample of a few of the other changes.

    rig up a primitive distillery to boil piss                                               to boil pee
    bags of shit                                                                                           bags of poop
    My asshole is doing as much to keep me alive as my brain                My butt is doing as much to  keep me alive as my brain.
    I am one lucky son of a bitch                                                               I am just lucky
    My crewmates and I tried not to shit ourselves.                                 tried not to puke
    And holy hell, it worked!                                                                    And holy crap, it worked!
    I dragged my ass out of bed.                                                                I dragged my butt out of bed.
    the magnitude of shitstorm                                                                 the magnitude of media circus
    those damn reporters                                                                          those reporters
    We’d look like assholes.                                                                      We’d look like jackasses.
    You learn how to shit in a bag.                                                            You learn how to crap in a bag.
    Jesus Christ, I’d give anything…                                                        Man, I’d give anything. . .
    You’re hanging him out to dry, you chickenshit                                 You’re hanging him out to dry.
    Prick.                                                                                                   Jerk.
    pushy little shit                                                                                  pushy little brat
   God damn Airlock 1                                                                            Grumble…stupid Airlock 1
   Clever son of a bitch                                                                            Clever S.O.B.
   shitting bricks                                                                                      sweating bullets
   Tell that asshole…                                                                               Tell that jackass…

The editorial fiddling with “shit” brings to mind the story of Bess Truman being asked to get the president to say fertilizer instead of manure. She replied, “You have no idea how long it took me to get him to say manure.”

Weir’s very deliberate language brings an immediacy to a quite serious, close-up look at science in action, science for survival. As the hero reflects in his log, “I might die, but damn it, someone will know what I had to say.” Editorially shriveled to “I might die, but someone will know what I had to say.”

Curiously, when Watney writes, “I expected it to be cold, but Jesus Christ!” the editorial committee leaves it as is. Other references to “Jesus” produce substitutions such as “Wow” and “Sheesh.”  There’s one exception.  When Watney and the crew discuss a severe storm, “Jesus” remains in both texts: “Jesus, we’re gonna end up in Oz.” Similarly, though editors relentlessly replace “piss” with “pee,” here’s an exception. This passage appears in both the original text and the Classroom Edition:

                          Then I watched the readouts to see how airtight things were.
                          Answer: Not very.
                          It absolutely pissed the air out. . . .
Go figure. Also go figure how this e-mail from Watney to NASA remains in both editions: “Also, please tell them that each and every one of their mothers is a prostitute. P.S. Their sisters, too.”

The Classroom Edition Watney can’t say "damn" airlock, but he can refer to his "hell of a backache." When he learns that the probe NASA is sending is named for Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow, he replies, “Gay probe coming to save me. Got it.” This is changed to “Pride parade probe coming to save me.”

Education Mandates

In 1834, Harvard dropout Richard Henry Dana Jr. sailed to California as a common seaman and wrote Two Years Before the Mast, a remarkable account of his voyage. More remarkably, Harper and Brothers included Dana’s book in their Harper’s School District Library series, a series that came about because 1838 state law mandated that all New York school districts of a certain size must possess a library. These days, state departments of education  decimate school libraries while busying themselves with mandates for a Common Core curriculum chosen by politicos and paid operatives of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. New York City offers “a new literacy instruction for next-generation learning.” Fifth graders get a Close Reading of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and ninth graders must plug into Plato’s Apology.

 I can understand why plenty of parents might want their kids to stick with the Common Core's reading plan  rather than either version of The Martian. But they’d be wrong.  Andy Weir’s use of language is likely to convert a lot of so-called ‘reluctant readers’ into actually reading a book, any book, never mind a book that presents serious science.

And consider this: In “Swearing as a response to pain” (Neuroreport. 20(12):1056-1060, August 5, 2009), psychologists at Kelle University have offered more proof of the power of the F-word than anybody associated with Common Core reading has ever offered for their pronouncements. Kelle researchers found that students who shouted the F-word could keep their hands in killingly cold water for 40 seconds longer than those who were only directed to say, “my fingers have just fallen off.’ Their conclusion: “Swearing relieves stress and helps to ease the experience of pain.”  Andy Weir’s book is about a whole lot of pain.

In Weir’s text, Annie, NASA director of media relations, who also has something of a blue mouth, complains, “The press is crawling down my throat for this. And up my ass. Both directions. They’re gonna meet in the middle.” The editors cut everything after “crawling down my throat.”

There is no little irony in the fact that this Classroom Edition is a Penguin Book. The Penguin Dictionary (1965) was the first general dictionary in modern times to include the F-Word. Houghton Mifflin followed in The American Heritage Dictionary (1969) but quickly published a “clean green” or “Texas edition” for the school market. My school’s unexpurgated version provoked considerable faculty disagreement, but the librarian stood firm in her belief that words matter, and our principal backed her. When my students reading Maya Angelou’s I know Why a Caged Bird Sings argued over just what a bastard was, we went to the library and looked it up. I remember Sylvia’s relieved “Is that all?” Emotions defused by definition.

Do I think that Andy Weir examined the history of the use of the F-word since the middle ages and decided to write in the tradition of James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and George Carlin? Of course not. He told us why he did it: He’s a smart ass. He self-published a book using his own language and then was lucky enough to find an enthusiastic audience.

Linguistically, “screw” is a euphemism, a rather bizarre attempt at delicacy. I would point out to nervous parents that “fuck” is just a word, and they can be relieved to know that the hero is alone on Mars. There is no sex in this book.


Editing: From Bad to Worse

The editing is bad. The Discussion Questions and Activities are far worse,  issuing commands that turn a riveting story into homework.
  •     Examine the calculations that Watney uses to determine the amount of resources it will take in order for him to survive. Do you agree with his calculations? Explain your answer.
  • ·Research the various sources of energy Watnes uses over the course of the novel…What are the risks and benefits…?
  •     Research the engineering of EVA suits.
  •   Explain the laws of physics. . .       
And more. Editorial departments that produce such claptrap focus on the histrionics of the corporate-politico world that pronounces No Child Left Behind and Every Child Succeeds while never doing a thing to address the very real fact that over 90% of students in large urban schools live in abject poverty. Politicos fuck it up every time, demanding that schoolteachers make up for the lack of a social and economic safety net.

I asked my Physics PhD husband, who reported “enjoying The Martian a lot,” if he immediately recognized the accuracy of Weir’s calculations, if he sat and thought about the science of the matter, or if he just kept reading. He replied, “Well, I don’t know that much about potatoes.” The classroom edition has research questions about those potatoes.

This editorial fiddling with The Martian isn’t a new ed job for the Global Economy but travels in a long line in making student texts line up to imposed standards. I discussed editorial fiddling with classic texts in “Ruffles and Flourishes” (The Atlantic, September 1987). Then, some replacements were based on so-called scientific readability formula: When “Cook spaghetti!” becomes “Cook pancakes,” it’s because spaghetti has one more syllable and elevates the reading level. So to keep Kipling’s “How the Camel Got His Hump” where they wanted it in their “scientific” grade level hierarchy, great big lolloping humph becomes a great big humph. Elsewhere, the change of “wily swindlers, crafty rogues” to “weavers” involves a whole lot more than syllable count, as does changing “The sea is our enemy” to “The sea is not our friend.” All sorts of agendas nose their way into committee decisions. Like Bartleby the Scrivener, Classroom Editions are "pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn.”

If schools are serious about getting kids to read more and to think about the wonders of science, then they need to be able to accept the challenge Andy Weir offers and reject the notion of attaching a study guide for math homework. Writing  about the book in The New York Times, Matt Ridley says,“I loved the fact that the hero never once implies that it’s courage, spirit and faith that saves him — as so many modern books and films would do — just lots of practical tinkering and problem-solving: Science the crap out of it.”

And let the smart-ass keep his voice.


  1. I see a sequel in the works called, um, The Earthlings.

    It starts out, "We're pretty much fucked."

    Then comes the reply, "That conclusion is entirely unjustified, based on opinions of less than 2 percent of the scientists asked."

    "What--you've got to be fucking kidding me?"

    "That language is entirely unjustified, and if you continue, we will cease communications with you. No rescue will be implemented because no rescue is required."

    I think you know how this ends.

  2. Anonymous11:24 AM

    Have the Common Core aficianados listened to the lyrics of the music and the dialogue of the movies imbibed by these kids?

    Abigail Shure