Issue #231 – The Martian

We may be in a new golden age of science fiction.

While good hard science fiction has never been absent over the decades, I’m talking about its mainstream popularity infecting the collective enthusiasm of the population. The kind of excitement that shapes the generation to come. In some ways we’ve lacked a united vision of the future because, as William Gibson once pointed out, we already live there.

Then along came movies like Moon, Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian and I got excited. Not just because they were great movies, but because so many other people wanted to see them too. Of those mentioned, The Martian is probably my favorite, and hearing how it went from personal fiction on Andy Weir’s website to self-published book on Amazon to national bestseller to blockbuster movie filled me with joy (and envy…lots and lots of envy).

As a story, The Martian is pretty straightforward. The Ares 3 mission on Mars is scrubbed due to a powerful storm. During the evacuation Mark Watney is lost and presumed dead by the crew, who are forced to leave without him. We open with him realizing just how well and truly screwed he is.

Basically, this is Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Survival in an inhospitable environment. And yet, it is so much more. Weir does an impressive amount of research to ensure as much of the story as possible is scientifically accurate, but he also recognizes that this is a story, and always frames his explanations in a way that sounds like a really smart and interesting guy is there breaking it down for you, instead of being forced to read a textbook or oversimplifying things in a patronizing way.

Unlike Robinson Crusoe, however, we don’t just see the story through Watney’s eyes. In time we see it through the team at NASA as well, trying to organize a rescue, and then later through the crew of the Hermes, who were forced to leave him behind.

Praise for the book has come from many sources, including astronauts like Chris Hadfield, who pointed out that Weir truly captured how astronauts and mission control actually cope with life and death situations. Weir studied orbital mechanics, astronomy, and the history of manned spaceflight while researching the book, to the point where he says he knows the exact date of each day in the book.

And while the book isn’t immune from mistakes (there is, in fact, a critical flaw with the very storm that causes the problem on Mars) the majority of the details are right on the money.

There is a risk when so much research is done that the author will overwhelm the reader with it, forgetting that the story comes first. Fortunately, Weir is a talented writer. He manages to make Watney and all the people working to save him interesting and believable. The movie changes a few character traits and events, but overall captures them just as well as the novel. It is the fact that this is a human experience that carries the reader through. The technical details create the verisimilitude.

An interesting element I hadn’t noticed until I wrote this review was that Weir specifically avoided physically describing the characters. I no doubt missed this because I saw the movie first, but it brings to mind a rule of writing from Stephen King—sometimes you only need to share enough description with the reader to allow them to fill in the blanks. Does it matter if Watney has brown hair or blond? Light skinned or dark? Not really. I sometimes find writers spend too much time pointing out such details when they aren’t really needed.

What appealed to me most about the novel was how Weir chose to advance the plot. Far too often I’ve seen stories where there is a lot of logical problem solving going on, only to have disaster strike in a completely unforeseen way just to shake things up—an act of God, if you will. Or that the writer digs them into a pit so deep the only way to save them is some kind of deus ex machina.

Weir decided going into the project that there would be no random disasters or miracles. Everything that happens had to be logical, both in terms of the setbacks and how Mark puzzled his way out of them. There is an honesty to this approach that is refreshing. Everything is earned, and this makes the struggle feel that much more real and the conclusion that much more rewarding.

Ultimately, this is a story about crisis management. If your life has suddenly been upended and you feel metaphorically like you’ve been cast adrift, wondering if you’ll ever make it back to shore, I highly recommend this book.

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