Over the last month or so, YouTube’s attempt to curate a video experience personalized to my tastes resulted in the latest Hollywood viral videos for The Martian showing up in my and everyone else’s video queues. So when Amazon tempted me with the Andy Weir book on which the movie is based for just $1.99, the cheapskate in me jumped at the deal. Despite being placed in a fictional near future where mankind has already done the legwork to put a team of scientists on Mars, the book is about as close as you can get to a true, modern account of a smart man marooned on a stupid planet.
If you’ve seen the movie previews, then you know the setup: a mission to Mars ends in an abrupt abort due to a violent dust storm, and in the hurry and confusion to leave the planet, one crewman gets left behind. It’s like Home Alone, but with freeze-dried ice cream. The radios are all dead (of course), there’s not enough food or water to last until the next scheduled visit to the planet (naturally), and don’t get me started on the complete lack of emergency escape pods. I kept expecting Kate Winslet to show up and drop a diamond necklace out of an airlock. But the planet has one essential resource that will bring the story to a happy ending: Matt Damon—excuse me, I mean Mark Watney.
Watney is part biologist, part engineer, and full time nerd. Using the resources left at the Mars habitation site (spoiler alert), he is able to generate sufficient dihydrogen monoxide, create a makeshift communications system back to NASA, and deck out a nearby minivan with enough life support to get him to the rendezvous site more than 3,000 kilometers across the barren surface of Malacandra. Just don’t ask me to describe how he obtained the fertilizer needed to grow his own potatoes.
The book is exciting, at least if you are the type of person who enjoys instruction manuals on how to rebuild a carburetor. Consider this gripping section from about the two-thirds point through the book.
The regulator analyzes the air with spectroscopy, then separates the gasses by supercooling them. Different elements turn to liquid at different temperatures. On Earth, supercooling this much air would take ridiculous amounts of energy. But (as I’m acutely aware) this isn’t Earth. Here on Mars, supercooling is done by pumping air to a component outside the Hab. The air quickly cools to the outdoor temperature, which ranges from -150°C to 0°C. When it’s warm, additional refrigeration is used, but cold days can turn air to liquid for free.
Yes, it is that riveting. A big chunk of the text is devoted to minutiae like this. Despite being a fan of science, there were a few moments when I wanted the author to just give the condensed Ikea version of the details and get the story moving. And yet it’s a good read, with reasonable pacing, periodic action and suspense, and an enjoyable narrative voice. For you geeks out there, there’s also the technical accuracy. In a postscript to the book, the author discusses the process he went through to complete the story, which included releasing the book in serial form to a world hungry for Martian castaway stories, and incorporating feedback from real rocket scientists into the final text.
The movie release is still a few weeks away. It will be interesting to see what Hollywood does with it given its nerd-centric storyline. The book has no bloodthirsty aliens or out-of-control robots, no superheroes swooping in to save the day, and nothing approaching romance, other than a few mentions of things that might have been if geeks weren’t involved. Instead of these movie staples, the story has the protagonist moving rocks, building and rebuilding his house, driving for thousands of kilometers without much to do or see, and disco music.
If the book does have a major flaw, it appears in the form of the happy ending. From the very first page, you can tell that everything will turn out all right for Watney. The Martian is that kind of book, that is: American. Or at least modern American. This book is no Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Huckleberry Finn. Although it lauds human ingenuity, it says very little about the human condition. Perhaps that’s why the book is called The Martian instead of The Human. Challenges arise, but with a little elbow grease and some engineering skills, all will be well. It’s an American story because that is what we’ve come to expect. Our superheroes—or in this case, our ordinary heroes—will rescue us.
At some point in our history, our storytelling became one of easy solutions. From the sitcom to the Hollywood-bound novel, the challenges given to us are now those that we already know how to overcome. It’s a storyline devoid of the complexities of life, and one that does little to prepare us for the real world. In The Martian, there are no terrorists, no petty international disputes, no electoral recounts. A big part of the story involves China giving up years of research and billions of dollars to help the United States rescue its abandoned astronaut. I hope that would happen IRL, but experience tells me that some underhanded politics would need to take place to bring about that level of international cooperation. Not that I’m cynical.
Don’t get me wrong; I really enjoyed The Martian. I’m just the type of technically adept literary lightweight that is the book’s target demographic. But it is pure entertainment, to the point where I seriously fear what would happen to the human race if we ever migrated to Mars.