Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.
Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.
After a dust storm forces his crew to evacuate the planet while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded on Mars’s surface, with no way to signal Earth that he’s alive. And even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone years before a rescue could arrive.
Chances are, though, Mark won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.
Armed with nothing but his ingenuity, his engineering skills–and a gallows sense of humor that proves to be his greatest source of strength–Mark embarks on a dogged quest to stay alive. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?
Well, what can I say? The Martian by Andy Weir was fantastic.
I was not a fan early on in the book. It read very much like a scientific manual and I wasn’t sure if I was reading that or a story with a narrative. The lengthy descriptions of his methods, and the paragraphs upon paragraphs of explanations and science behind what he did went over my head. Not necessarily because I couldn’t comprehend it, but because all I really cared about was the outcome.
I can create the O2 easily enough. It takes twenty hours for the MAC fuel plant to fill its 10-liter tank with CO2. The oxygenator can turn it into O2 then the atmospheric regulator will see the O2 content in the Hab is high, and pull it out of the air, storing it in the main O2 tanks. They’ll fill up, so I’ll have to transfer O2 over to the rovers’ tanks and even the space suit tanks as necessary. But I can’t create it very quickly. At half a liter of CO2 per hour, it will take twenty-five days to make the oxygen I need. That’s longer than I’d like.
I couldn’t help but imagine that if I was stuck on Mars with Watney (putting aside the fact that I would face almost-certain death), he would explain all of this to me and wait, expectantly, for me to jump up and down in a standing ovation. For the first part of the book, the narrative is littered with these lengthy, step-by-step details of what he is going to do. These either impress you or they don’t. Personally, I was impressed the first time but after the tenth time, I felt a little bored. Maybe I felt a little exhausted too because, okay I get it, Mark Watney is very intelligent, deserves to live because he is intelligent, and I am reminded of this repeatedly. It started to feel like I was suffering from blunt-force trauma.
But, I believe in the principle of charity. I told myself that if Watney didn’t provide explanations, I would criticize the book for being too unbelievable, too theoretical, and lacking substance. So I soldiered on. I was curious. Regardless of my qualms (which I will return to after), Watney was stranded on another planet; this was a survival tale of an entirely different level. I wanted to know – needed to know – how Watney would survive.
Once the other perspectives were introduced, the book started to take a turn for the better, and it was then did I feel myself invested in the book and its story. Weir offers some commentary on society’s insatiable appetite for disaster stories. Television programs and hours of the day are dedicated to Watney. Viewers both love and hate the spectacle; they love the drama, the voyeurism, the extraordinary circumstances, they love and hate being helplessly glued to the fate of one person. Whilst there are people gallantly trying to help Watney save his life, the narrative was balanced with commentary on sensationalism and bureaucracy. The juxtaposition is deeply interesting, and the story had something worthwhile to say about how the masses consume and commodify disaster.
However, Weir doesn’t only paint humankind in such a jaded light. Underlying the story is the idea that people generally possess the basic instinct of altruism and compassion. When the odds of Watney’s survival are slim (perhaps non-existent for the average Joe), Weir’s portrayal of humanity at its finest was moving – inspiring, even. I love these utopian narratives where all of the world unites together to achieve something. Suffice it to say, The Martian hit something quite close to home for me.
One of my biggest criticisms of The Martian is that any psychological consequence of Watney’s plight are largely neglected. Unlike most of the book, the psychological and behavioural science isn’t rocket science. Watney spends months and months alone and on another planet, and yet he shows no signs of mental deterioration or distress. If there’s something that the Sims got right, it’s that people, like Sims, are social creatures and we need human connection to survive. Loneliness can have serious consequences on one’s mental health, no matter how mentally healthy and resilient they may be. To quote the article, ‘Loneliness … sets in motion a variety of “slowly unfolding pathophysiological processes.”‘
Instead, Watney is strangely, bewilderingly optimistic throughout. Where is the oppressive fear of death? The trauma? The anxiety? The guilt? The desperation? The lack of weakness was extremely unrealistic to me, and I don’t buy it for a second. As a consequence, I wasn’t particularly invested in Watney the character – I was more invested in the outcome. And I can’t help but think that The Martian could have achieved more if Watney had a personality beyond ‘sarcastic’, ‘funny’ and ‘intelligent’.
Nonetheless, I have thought a lot about this book since finishing. Why did I like it so much? There were some glaring flaws that were deftly covered up by the compelling premise and addictive momentum of the narrative (especially when other perspectives are introduced). As I discussed earlier, I was not fond of the superfluous math and physics. I wasn’t convinced that Weir understood the human psyche well enough, and it showed in the under developed characters. My criticisms seem to outweigh my praises.
And yet, it was just so exciting. The Martian was an excellent survival story that delivers what it promises. To uphold my integrity as a reader, I cannot deny that I enjoyed the book despite its shortcomings. And sometimes, I think that is what it comes down to when reading a book. As some of you know, I cried. I cried a lot; I was so overwhelmed by the ending. And when books can elicit such a strong emotional response from me (other than raging, burning anger), it leaves an impression on me. The Martian did just that.
Book Name: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Publisher: Broadway Books/Crown/Random House (NY)