The Riveting, Unstoppable ‘Martian’

Attribution: Wikipedia, qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

There’s something quite somber about space. Depressing actually. It comes with the territory; should something terribly wrong occur outside Earth, it’s quite difficult to do anything about it. A cursory look at the stories that take place outside Earth – 2001, Alien, Gravity, The Martian Chronicles – reveals as much. Humor seems to be a luxury in space. But when Teddy Sanders, director of the NASA, wonders what one of his astronauts, Mark Watney, is thinking, alone on Mars, this is what we get:

LOG ENTRY: SOL 61
How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.

Andy Weir’s The Martian is the tale of Mark Watney, a member of the Ares 3 crew on Mars, who gets stranded on the Red Planet after a catastrophe in a huge Martian sandstorm. He has to stay alive long enough for help to be sent to him, and he has to make use of resources that his crew left behind. The eminent members of Goodreads label it Gravity-meets-Cast Away, and I agree with them, if only to add that that comparison extends beyond the content of the novel.

As a medium of storytelling, the novel has existed for centuries. In that time, its ability to remain relevant lies in authorial flexibility. In the modern age, popular storytelling forms like cinema have come to influence the novel, both in content and form. The Martian reads, for the most part, like a Hollywood blockbuster. Here’s a passage describing the anticipation of the world before a crucial booster launch that takes place midway through the book:

They gathered. Everywhere on Earth, they gathered. In Trafalgar Square and Tiananmen Square and Times Square, they watched on giant screens. In offices, they huddled around computer monitors. In bars, they stared silently at the TV in the corner. In homes, they sat breathlessly on their couches, their eyes glued to the story playing out. In Chicago, a middle-aged couple clutched each other’s hands as they watched. The man held his wife gently as she rocked back and forth out of sheer terror.

 Not only can you imagine it happening, the particular way you would imagine it brings to mind similar scenarios in films like Armageddon and Apollo 13. The novel moves from one scene to another with remarkable fluidity and the climax of the novel is a nail-biting action sequence that you could imagine seeing on the big screen (possibly directed by Michael Bay or Paul Greengrass because Alfonso Cuaron probably won’t do it). Andy Weir, in his desire to make a mark on the Internet (this novel was self-published before being bought by the Crown Publishing Group), ensures that boredom does not take hold of his readers.

This ethic extends to his protagonist, Mark Watney. Watney is the genial, wisecracking American male who doesn’t balk in the face of adversity, no matter how dire the situation is. Ever resourceful, he has the technical smarts of Sheldon Cooper with the likability of Saul Goodman and an undying optimism. While this makes him nice to be around, it takes away from the realism of the situation itself. The optimism and wisecracks feel manufactured after a certain point, especially when the more dire obstacles arise. I’m not saying that the utter coldness of Dr. Ryan Stone from Gravity is more appropriate; you would think that 400 sols away from Earth would psychologically affect any astronaut.

Instead, Weir chooses to examine the technical realism of the situation: could any astronaut survive on Mars for an extended period of time, given the resources around them? Every technical component of NASA’s equipment on Mars is analyzed in detail, with extreme plausibility, as Watney’s ideas for survival take hold. The basics of survival, food, water and shelter come first, but then elements like communication and transportation come into play. Here’s an example of the level of technical detail Weir goes to in detailing Watney’s food situation:

I need to create calories. And I need enough to last the 1387 sols until Ares 4 arrives. If I don’t get rescued by Ares 4, I’m dead anyway. A sol is 39 minutes longer than a day, so it works out to be 1425 days. That’s my target: 1425 days of food. I have plenty of multivitamins; over double what I need. And there’s five times the minimum protein in each food pack, so careful rationing of portions takes care of my protein needs for at least four years. My general nutrition is taken care of. I just need calories. I need 1500 calories every day. I have 400 days of food to start off with. So how many calories do I need to generate per day along the entire time period to stay alive for around 1425 days? I’ll spare you the math. The answer is about 1100. I need to create 1100 calories per day with my farming efforts to survive until Ares 4 gets here.

Weir understands that most of his audience does not consist of scientifically inclined individuals, and for the most part he succeeds in breaking down each of Watney’s maneuvers into layman terms. But some of the science did fly over my head and some explanations felt repetitive. There were times when I felt frustrated by the technicalities inherent in Watney’s situation and was more willing to read about a parallel plot the occurs on Earth, when NASA discovers that Watney is still alive.

Weir juggles two significant themes in The Martian which are equally compelling. On an individual level, Watney’s journey clearly has something to say about human determination and optimism. But while it is set slightly in the future, the novel also has an eye on the past. There is the nostalgia associated with the simplicity of the ’70s as indicated by the various cultural references made to the period. Nostalgia is also accorded to America’s space program, when NASA was more active with their missions and being an astronaut was a national desire. It is the kind of novel that makes engineers cool while suggesting that humanity is greater than the sum of its parts. At the end, Watney says it best:

If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do. And because of that, I had billions of people on my side.

You should read The Martian. It’s well worth your time.

Eternal Snapshots of a Soulful Mind

A blue gondola cascades gently down a waterway in Venice. It crawls in languor, the afternoon sun immersing it in all its glory. As it rolls along under a stone bridge, Alan Lightman rests on his back, gazing at the blue sky, lost within his mind. He blinks. He finds himself in Bern, Switzerland, 1905, at the zenith of twilight. ‘It is a quiet time of day. Shopkeepers are dropping their awnings and getting out of their bicycles. From a second floor window, a mother calls to her daughter to come home and prepare dinner.’ Just as he sees the two colleagues who are coming home from the Patent Office, he blinks again. He is back at the gondola, but no time has passed. As Lightman imagines Einstein’s Dreams, so do I imagine Lightman’s own.

Such is the distinctive quality of Lightman’s book, Einstein’s Dreams (1992). It does not concern itself with a specific plot; it instead depicts different conceptions of time that appear as dreams to Einstein, who appears at regular intervals with his working partner, Michele Besso. No variation of the different paths time can take is excluded, including such prominent examples as “sticky time”, “mechanical time” and “time in fits and starts”. Lightman eloquently paints each variation with an ethereal and surreal texture. He does not concern us with the scientific possibility and theoretical probability of these wondrous concepts. Instead, he explores the real world implications and human reactions to different timescapes.

In a world where the center of time exists:
‘And so, at the place where time stands still, one sees parents clutching their children, in a frozen embrace that will never let do. The beautiful young daughter with blue eyes and blond hair will never stop smiling the smile she smiles now, will never lose this pink glow on her cheeks, will never grow wrinkled or tired, will never get injured, will never unlearn what her parents have taught her, will never think thoughts that her parents don’t know, will never know evil, will never tell her parents that she does not love them, will never leave her room with the view of the ocean, will never stop touching her parents as she does now.’

The writing is simple, the images are indelible. A tortured Einstein roams the streets of Bern, formulating his new theory of time, but Lightman pays little attention to his titular character. Instead, through Einstein, he depicts our interaction, infatuation, relationship and obsession with Time as well as our desires and the consequences that spring from it. Snapshots at faceless individuals gaze upon the fragility of human existence, a tale woven with the barest of threads, worn at the edges, glowing in fits and starts, overseen by the tick of the Grand Clock. A proto-Groundhog Day scenario takes place with each chapter, as the citizens of Bern are manipulated under the rules that govern each new concept of time, thus making the city a prominent figure in these vignettes.

As we struggle to control this ever elusive group of nightingales, Lightman forces us to consider the possibilities that emerge from twisting pretzels with the sand of the hourglass. But for Einstein, on an early morning in June 1905, history has not been made, and time moves on.

Einstein statue by maveric2003, CC-BY-2.0

How to Write An Immortal Book

First, write a decent novel that you can be moderately proud of and which some people will buy. Next, write another book, but keep it as an unedited manuscript, and don’t even tell your editor about it. Then commit suicide, but make it look like it happened because of “unexplained circumstances”. Eventually your editor will find the unedited manuscript and it will be an instant success because your life would have been dissected for clues as to why you did what you did and your first novel will be dissected to hint at your suicide. Either way, you win, and your name will become immortal.

Excerpts from ‘Paris Spleen’

Charles Baudelaire

Thanks to my Coursera (I should really write about that site) course The Modern and the Postmodern from Wesleyan University, I’ve had the good fortune of reading some fantastic texts from Immanuel Kant, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Darwin, Charles Baudelaire and right now Friedrich Nietzsche (I’ll be posting on his work soon). Yesterday I read the amazing Paris Spleen from Charles Baudelaire, a collection of prose poetry, short anecdotes, and bursts of phantasmagoric imagery. Here’s the preface to put the context for the reader:

For Arsène Houssaye

My dear friend, I am sending you a small work that cannot, without injustice, be said to have neither head nor tail, for all in it is, on the contrary, at one and the same time head and tail, alternately and reciprocally. Consider, I beg of you, what admirable conveniences this combination offers to all of us — to you, to me, and to the reader. We can cut things off wherever we wish: myself, my revery; you, the manuscript; the reader, his reading, for I do not suspend his stubborn will upon the interminable thread of a superfluous intrigue. Take away one vertebra and the two ends of this twisted fantasia will rejoin themselves without any trouble. Chop it up into many fragments, and you will see that each one can exist in isolation. In the hope that a few of the pieces will be lively enough to please and amuse you, I dare to dedicate the entire serpent to you.

I have a little confession to make to you. It was as I was thumbing through, for at least the twentieth time, Aloysius Bertrand’s famous Gaspard de la Nuit (doesn’t a book that is known to you, me, and some of our friends have the right to be called “famous”?) that I was struck by the idea of trying something analogous, and of applying to the description of modern life, or rather of a modern and more abstract life, the approach he applied to the painting of life in the past, so strangely picturesque.

Who among us has not, in his more ambitious days, dreamed of the miracle of a poetic and musical prose, without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and abrupt enough to adapt itself to lyrical movements of the soul, to the undulations of reverie, to sudden leaps of conscience?

This obsessive idea owes its birth above all else to the frequenting of enormous cities, to the criss-crossing of their innumerable relations. Did you yourself, my dear friend, not attempt to translate into song the strident patter of the street-seller of glass, and to express in a lyrical prose all of the distressing suggestions that his cry sends up through the street’s highest fogs, to the very garrets?

But, to tell the truth, I am afraid that my envious desire has not brought me good fortune. As soon as I began this work, I realized that not only had I remained very distant from my mysterious and brilliant model, but also that I was doing something (if it can be called “something”) singularly different, an accident that might make anyone else but me proud, undoubtedly, but that can only profoundly humiliate a mind that considers it the greatest honor of the poet to accomplish exactly what he set out to do.

Your very affectionate,

C. B. 

Since the work in this collection is perfectly suited for the kind of reader that prefers quick bite-sized pieces of art rather than longform writing, here are a couple of excerpts from Paris Spleen:

1. The Stranger

— Tell me, enigmatic man, whom do you love the best? Your father, or your mother, or your sister, or your brother? — I have neither father, nor mother, nor sister, nor brother.

— Your friends?

— You are using a word whose meaning remains unknown to me to this very day.

— Your country?

— I do not know under what latitude it lies.

— Beauty?

— I would love her gladly, goddess and immortal.

— Gold?

— I hate it as much as you hate God.

— Well then! What do you love, extraordinary stranger?

— I love the clouds … the passing clouds … over there … over there … the marvelous clouds!

33. Get Drunk

You must always be drunk. That is everything: it is the only question. To not feel the horrible burden of Time breaking your shoulders and bowing you towards the earth, you must get drunk without cease. But on what? On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, as you like. But get drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace, on the green grass of a ditch, in the gloomy solitude of your room, you wake up, your drunkenness already diminished or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that flees, that moans, that rolls, that sings, that speaks, ask what time it is: and the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, will answer: “It’s time to get drunk! Not to be the martyred slaves of Time, get drunk; get drunk without cease! On wine, on poetry, on virtue, as you like.”

8. The Dog And The Perfume Bottle

“– My beautiful dog, my good dog, my dear little doggie, come over and smell this excellent perfume, purchased from the best perfumer in the city.”

And the dog, wagging his tail, which in these poor beasts, I believe, corresponds to laughter and a smile, approaches and sets his moist nose curiously on the opened perfume bottle; then, fearfully recoiling all of a sudden, he barks at me, in the manner of a reproach.

“– Oh! Miserable dog, if I had offered you a package of excrement, you would have sniffed it with delight and perhaps even devoured it. Thus you, unworthy companion of my sad life, you yourself resemble the public, to which one must never present the delicate perfumes that infuriate it, but rather carefully chosen filth.”

I highly recommend that you read all the other stories because they have the refreshing potency of descriptive writing mixed with the surrealism of a tortured Frenchman. You can find Paris Spleen in its totality here.

My Brief Flirtation with ‘Cloud Atlas’

She’s that mysterious woman hidden by the shadows and neon light at the corner of a party, drink in hand, eyes looking at you disinterested. She’s clothed in pink silk and when she moves, it’s like her dress tells you the hint of a story. You’re surrounded on all sides by other people, but you’re not interested in any of them because at that moment, you want to know more about this woman. You want to spend the whole night on the balcony, glasses in hand, unearthing what makes her who she is, finding out why that initial glimpse provoked you into believing that she’s so alluring. That’s Cloud Atlas.

I first encountered Cloud Atlas while on holiday in Yercaud. I was there with my family for a couple of days, chilling out and relaxing. In my relaxed state of mind, I wandered over to the hotel library, which was pretty useless and obviously targeted at certain age groups when the glimpse of pink attracted my eyes to it. Intrigued, I picked it up and went through the process of checking the synopsis out and reading the praise it had received.

Something close to what I saw on the front

Something close to what I saw on the back

And so, I took it back to my room, determined to read it soon. When I logged on to my computer and googled it, I discovered that Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the Wachowski Brothers (they made a little known trilogy with the title ‘Matrix’ in them) were adapting it into an epic movie. I thought to myself: this had to be FATE (because I’m a student of cinema and I found this book and they’re making….you get what I’m saying?)! It couldn’t be anything else, it meant I had to start reading it. And so I did, which resulted in the most enriching experience I have had with a book till date.

Cloud Atlas jumps across different stories in different timelines, but they’re all strangely connected (from what I remember, the pianist in Europe find Adam Ewing’s journal in the bookcase and Luisa Rey’s friend is connected to the pianist). The timelines are cut mid sentence and the layout of the book is like a Mobius strip ( a term I got from Doc Jensen ranting about LOST) that revisits the same story lines and presumably concludes them.

Mitchell populates his prose with wit, humor and a whole dollop of awesomeness as he weaves his intricate tale. I haven’t even got halfway through the book, because I had to leave the book behind at the hotel before we left. One of the worst decisions ever made. I should have just stolen it against my better judgement. It’s like biting into a strawberry for the first time. It’s all over the place in a mind blowing way.

And now the movie adaptation running at 160 minutes is making the rounds at festivals and people seem to be raving about it. I’ve purposely avoided any reviews or trailers, waiting to be able to finish talking to that woman. My dad saw one of these reviews from Toronto and asked me about it. I had tried persuading him to buy the digital Kindle version, but to no avail. I saw my chance and took it and downloaded the $4.32 kindle edition. 3 seconds later, the woman was back, staring me in the face. I didn’t start reading immediately obviously, because I wanted to get in that state of mind where you have to savor each word that your eyes see. Enjoy every moment, not like how I was with Harry Potter, whose prose had the flair of a pig scribbling the alphabet. I’m still waiting to get there, for when I do, nothing, not my job, not my online courses, not cinema, nothing will come in the way of me spending time with Cloud Atlas, for I truly believe it’s one of those books that has to be read before you die simply for its whimsical nature. Just look at the Amazon reviews if you don’t believe me, millions of people feel this way. And from what I’ve read so far, the stories aren’t UNIQUE. It’s the way he deals with them that is.

To Cloud Atlas, the woman who will steal your heart in a split-second. I’ll talk more about her as soon as my conversation is over, which I hope doesn’t happen quickly.