The Riveting, Unstoppable ‘Martian’

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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:

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.