Sometimes, serendipity: The Martian movie came on Netflix Canada a few weeks ago; coincidentally, the book showed up on my library’s New Books shelf last week! I prefer to read the book before I watch a movie, so that has worked out very well. I’ve intended to read The Martian for a while now, but it has not been a high priority—I planned to “get around to it”. As I tend to do with books that suddenly explode in popularity and get movie deals, I wanted to be sceptical. I didn’t want to like it that much. That being said, the book’s origin story means there is something special to it (even if that something special isn’t something I would see). I am surprised by how much I ended up liking it. Andy Weir certainly slings enough technical details in there for any science nerd’s appetite—but there is also a complex and nuanced story that leaves you with a lot to think about, both in terms of space travel and being human.
Let’s get this out of the way: this book is very technically dense. Like, you might think they sling a lot of technobabble in Star Trek, and you’d be right—but there is much more technobabble here, with the added bonus of much more verisimilitude as well. Weir has the expertise and has done the research to back up this attempt to portray as accurately as possible an attempt to survive on Mars solo. Unlike many other novels where the author has done the research so thoroughly they are aching to show all their work, The Martian’s technical density works. There’s a few reasons for this. Firstly, Weir has most of the narrative taking place as a series of log entries by Mark. As a result, only the interstitial scenes of talking heads at NASA seem Sorkinesque in their intense “as you know” and idiot ball question moments. Secondly, Weir balances out the science with moments of dry, self-deprecating humour, as well as moments of profound humility. There is a sense of respect and awe in this book, both for science and space and the sheer audacity of the human spirit.
It’s probably not very original to compare this to Apollo 13—both are stories about disasters in space requiring quick thinking and quick action, and both are more technical than your average science fiction entertainment. Apollo 13, of course, is based on a true story, whereas The Martian is wholly fictional, albeit attempting as much realism as one can muster for a mission to Mars twenty years into the future. Nevertheless, to me what these two stories most have in common is how they highlight the essential fragility of our space travel.
Think about it for a moment. Aside from a handful of people who have visited the Moon, which itself is not that far away from Earth in the grandest scheme of things, we have barely left the atmosphere of our planet. Even these accomplishments have taken tremendous effort. And if you pay attention to Mark in The Martian, you can see why: there is so much that can go wrong. One broken component, one mismatched seal, and the whole mission might have to be scrubbed. Physics is a stern and unforgiving tutor, orbital mechanics more so: if you miss your window, burn too much or too little fuel, don’t plan ahead far enough … you’re done. There are seldom do-overs in space.
When you look at it this way, it is a miracle that more astronauts haven’t died and a testament to the efforts of all the people involved in designing, building, testing, deploying, and managing the complex systems and technologies in place to achieve spaceflight. The Martian lets us be a fly on the wall as that same machine spins up to save one man stranded on Mars. We get to hear about how difficult it is, precisely why it is so difficult, and we learn about all the ways it can go disastrously, horribly wrong for the one way it might go right. Meanwhile, we are left with the sad and tragic certainty that Mark Watney has nothing to listen to on Mars except disco. The poor man.
Aside from the technical feat of rescuing Mark, there is also the psychological aspect to the plot. Mark’s humour, of course, is an obvious draw. I appreciate how Weir depicts Mark’s varying mood depending on his situation: sometimes Mark is extremely resilient, upbeat, optimistic; after a setback, he might be somewhat down, a little more subdued. As Mark’s time as the sole inhabitant of Mars stretches on, a sense of deep loneliness settles into his log entries. Even in his most optimistic moments, when everything is going well and he hasn’t set himself on fire lately, we get the sense that Mark is just tired. Because Weir shows us rather than tells us, the whole experience is much more evocative.
One of my worries and preconceptions going into The Martian was that it would just be “the Mark Watney show”, that is, Mark would be a huge Mary Sue who is good at everything required to help him survive alone on a planet trying its best to kill him. To some extent the complaint is still valid, lampshaded slightly by the reality that astronauts are selected precisely because they are somewhat like the real-world equivalent of Mary Sues: they are polymaths who excel in not just one but multiple fields, respond well to pressure, have great creativity, and also have grit. Still, few things are more boring than watching a lone American dude talk us through how he was totally da best at living on Mars. This is not the hero I need.
Fortunately, that doesn’t happen. Mark’s individual intelligence and resilience are definitely on display. Nor am I going to get counterfactual on a fictional scenario and try to figure out if Mark might have survived and then made it to the Ares 4 MAV if he had never re-established contact with NASA (probably not). However, Weir also emphasizes that rescuing him is a massive team effort (something Mark acknowledges explicitly) on the order of most of the planet, in a psychic sense if not a literal one. So instead of “the Mark Watney show” it’s “the combined output of NASA and several other governmental and private institutions, featuring Mark Watney, show”. Again, this is much more realistic, and more importantly—from a reading perspective—it’s more satisfying. It allows Mark to be a flawed character who can make mistakes because someone else is kind of watching his back.
I can definitely see how one’s emotional investment in Mark might vary. He is not exactly a well-defined protagonist, despite being a dynamic character. For example, although he disparages Lewis’ seventies obsession and seems neutral about Johannsen’s Agatha Christie fandom, we learn very little about his likes and dislikes. His sense of humour, his intelligence, his perseverance—these all come through. But if it weren’t for the narrative device being used, this might almost sound like a recreation of Mark Watney’s famous Mars experience rather than the real thing. Combine this with the dense technical details, and I can see why some might pan The Martian as lacking spirit—though I don’t agree. As noted above, there is so much spirit to this work if you’re looking for it.
The Martian is an example of how there is so much good science fiction out there that is so different. It’s not going to appeal to everyone, though events obviously demonstrate it has a broad appeal. What matters to me is its depiction of a space industry that feels both realistic and yet also positive. Although Weir probably underestimates the extent to which private companies like SpaceX will have a role in Mars exploration, the very idea that we will send not one but multiple scientific missions to Mars within my lifetime is very inspirational. This isn’t the only kind of science fiction I want to read (I’ll take my Gibsonian techno-dystopias and Strossian near-future political singularities too), but it is a kind of science fiction. The kind that reminds us what humanity is capable of in our greatest moments and encourages us to keep reaching for those dreams.