People enjoy a good survival story. The classic castaway stories like Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson were and still are popular, but contemporary takes like Life of Pi and Jamrach’s Menagerie prove that people still love to read about other people getting stuck somewhere, either alone or in the company of others, and then trying to find a way to survive despite the seemingly impossible odds. And because such stories are ripe with drama and conflict, they also make good television, as evidenced by shows like Lost and the Survivor franchise. They also make immensely popular and critically-acclaimed movies, like Cast Away and 127 Hours.
I suppose the reason these stories are so popular is because of the kinds of themes that are woven into them. These stories talk about the value of resources – after all, it’s easy to take food and water for granted until they are taken away from oneself. They also talk about the lengths people go to in order to survive: how the niceties of civilization are stripped away from a person when nothing except the need to survive remains, revealing that even the kindest people can carry a dreadful shadow in their hearts. And they talk about the hidden strength of the human spirit, how even the most horrific events that break other people can cause a few to rise above their situation and become, well, something more than just “merely” human. And that’s where the real beauty of survival stories lie: that ability to stare potential defeat and destruction in the eye, and fight it – and sometimes, even conquer it.
But most of these survival stories take place on Earth: on an isolated island, on a boat adrift in the middle of the ocean, or in the middle of the desert. These are all hostile, difficult environments, to be sure, but they’re still on Earth. Unless one falls out of a boat and into the water, or is crushed under some heavy weight, or is trapped underground, one doesn’t have to worry about running out of air. Nor does one have to worry about one small, tiny puncture turning into a massive gaping hole that will suck one into the cold, black depths of the vacuum.
No, those are problems that belong specifically to space, an environment that humans are supremely unsuited to. One might argue that we’re not suited for survival in water (and here I can clearly hear Hope’s voice telling me about how we evolved to get out of the water, not get back into it), but we’ve managed the challenges of being in an aquatic environment fairly well. Plus, getting out of the water is mostly a matter of staying up, or going up. There’s no such thing as an “up” to go to in space.
And yet humanity is going to space. Even as I type this there are people in the International Space Station who are living in conditions our species never evolved to live in. Though they’re tethered, in a manner of speaking, to a tenuous supply line and communications line to Earth, the astronauts on the ISS generally live cut off from any kind of help. If something goes wrong up there, they’re going to have to figure out their own solutions to it before it gets worse.
This makes space a unique setting for a survival story, and why movies like Apollo 13 and Gravity get so much attention: we don’t completely understand, or even know, all the issues of living in a vacuum with no gravity. Space is unknown terrain for humanity, and we’re only just learning to manage it.
But what happens when people go to other planets? Ever since the Curiosity rover landed in 2012 and began exploring Mars, more and more scientifically-inclined folks have posited the idea of actually sending people to Mars, with the idea of eventually setting up a colony. Elon Musk has has made human travel to and colonization of Mars his main mission in life, which also partially drives the projects of his company SpaceX. During the Cold War, children looked up at the moon and thought: “I’ll go there one day.” Today, there are children who are looking at Mars through telescopes, or following Curiosity via the Internet, and thinking the exact same thing.
It is this interest in traveling to and living on Mars that drives Andy Weir’s The Martian. Though I view it as “science fiction,” the kind of future it envisions really isn’t all that distant. The novel is set in a near-future wherein NASA has started the Ares Program, which sends human-controlled missions to Mars, as opposed to the current program of sending remote-controlled rovers. The program is currently on its third mission, and so far, nothing has gone wrong. That good luck, however, doesn’t hold for long.
The novel opens with Mark Watney, botanist and mechanical engineer, declaring that he’s “pretty much fucked” – not because he’s stranded on a deserted island, or in the middle of the ocean, or even in the middle of the desert. No: he’s stuck on Mars, and now he has to find a way to get out of there alive. This happened because a powerful windstorm ripped through the Ares 3 crew’s base, causing NASA to scrub the mission and driving the crew to scramble to get out of there as fast as they can. Unfortunately, the winds were so powerful that it took out the reception antenna array and, in a perfect example of sheer bad luck, stabbed it right through Watney’s side. Thinking him dead, the rest of the crew got off Mars and headed back to Earth – not knowing that Mark was still alive.
One of the most important things about any survival story is the likability of the primary narrator. In many of the other survival stories I’ve seen on the big and small screen, and in the books I’ve read, the narrators always think deep, dark thoughts, in order to drive home some grand, noble theme about survival, the strength of the human spirit, et cetera. For some people, this can take some getting used to, or one has to be in the right sort of mood for that kind of thing.
That is most definitely not the case with Watney. His thoughts about his efforts to survive on Mars (documented in a blog that he keeps on the computer systems left behind for the Ares 3 mission) are so cheerful and positive that it’s hard not to like him right away. I was rooting for him after the first few paragraph, mostly because he goes against the common grain of other protagonists in survival stories.
See, in other survival stories, being the jokester, the cheerful one, is likely to get one killed. It’s as if one cannot survive unless one is of serious temperament, as if the need to survive should drive out all sense of laughter and humor – in people deserving of survival, anyway. This, I think, is not entirely accurate: I’m sure there are some people who go serious and quiet when faced by crises, but there’s also people out there who handle similar crises through laughter and joking, and by generally putting a positive face on everything, instead of always being a Negative Norman.
Watney is the farthest thing from a Negative Norman, but that does not, in any way, make him more likely to die. In fact, if anyone is going to survive being stuck on Mars, Watney is pretty much it. His multidisciplinary background means he can macgyver his way to a solution for any problem he encounters, including his food supply. But it’s not those things that made me root for Watney, that made me cheer every victory he achieved, however small. It was Watney’s sheer good humor and geekiness that made me like him, that made me want to see him get back home to Earth. He’s a character whose survival I care about at a visceral, very emotional level, as opposed to purely intellectual, because he’s very much like a lot of people I call my friends.
This does not, of course, diminish the thematic power of this book. There is a lot about what this book says about human resilience and determination (common themes in survival stories), but I think the most important theme it tackles is the one about humanity putting aside politics and prejudice in order to achieve a common goal. Such pulling together isn’t always entirely altruistic, but if it were I wouldn’t have quite believed it when it happened in the novel. There’s also little moments in the novel that tackle the relationship between science and religion – specifically one particular moment in the book that’s easy to miss, but reading it made me very happy indeed.
As for the more technical aspects of the writing, I myself can’t attest to their accuracy or inaccuracy, but I’ve heard other people say that the technical side of the story is pretty sound – “other people” being astronaut Chris Hadfield. And if it’s good enough for Chris Hadfield, it’s good enough for little old me. There are times, of course, when the technical parts go a bit over my head, but they do not in any way affect the flow of the story: Weir’s writing manages to explain most of it in a manner that a layman would mostly understand and find entertaining. This is important, since an enormous chunk of the novel is dedicated to explaining just how Watney manages to find solutions to the problems he’s confronted with.
It’s easy to think that this book was absolute perfection, and it is, for the most part, but there’s a bit of room for improvement. This says more about me as a reader than anything wrong about the book itself, because it’s just a small thing that doesn’t really detract much from the book: I wanted to learn more about the other crew members of the Ares 3 mission. I thought that some expansion on them would have been great for providing an alternative view of who Watney was as a person, which, I think, would have given Watney greater depth of character, and that’s always a good thing in any story. I doubt they could have said anything that would have made me like Watney less, but it would have been nice to see how other people saw him before he got stranded on Mars. Plus, they strike me as being a rather funny, interesting lot in their own right, and I do think Weir missed an opportunity to create an entire cast of characters for his readers to love when he didn’t explore the rest of the Ares 3 crew.
Overall, The Martian is one of the finest sci-fi reads I’ve encountered in a while: one that operates on assumptions of what may happen in the near-future, and one whose vision isn’t all bleak and dystopic. It tells a story that might become headline news in the next ten or twenty years, and posits responses, both from Watney and from the rest of humanity, that are entirely plausible, given the context. But the best part of it is not just Watney’s thoroughly entertaining voice, or the technical side of the writing: the best part is the way Weir writes about how the people on Earth pulled together to bring him home. There are many smaller, subtler scenes that some more cynical folk might call idealized, but these scenes are necessary. They might not be reality yet, but they must become reality if humanity as a species is going succeed at getting off Earth and into space permanently. Space, after all, is about optimism, and books like The Martian show just what sort of places optimism can get not just one person, but an entire species.