One’s company, too
Meeting under the red sky of sunset on blue planet Earth, the Beamers gathered to discuss the travails of being stranded on another world, fighting for survival, with only 1970s sitcoms and disco music to keep the spirits “Staying Alive”. Mark Watney, the titular protagonist of Andy Weir’s self-published success The Martian, did well with his pop culture lifesavers. Would the Beamers also boogie to the beat?
When geekery becomes “cool”
Soon to be a major motion picture, starring Matt Damon, The Martian is a tale that is set on a new world but recounts a story that has old, old cousins: human versus Nature, struggling against the odds and the gods to get home. The Odyssey, said Alan, when we talked of the book’s plot. Gravity, said I, thinking of another recent space operetta (Jon refuses to grant it a full ‘sf’ designation, and certainly its orbital mechanics would require Vulcan’s forge to fix more than Mr. Spock’s tricorder). Perhaps the best single summation is in a strip from the webcomic xkcd about how The Martian movie would be for people who liked the kit-bashing scene in Apollo 13 and want more of that in their cinema. (See https://xkcd.com/1536/) But The Martian adds a lot of its own quirky, snarky charm to the old, old mix.
Mark Watney, our hero, is trapped on Mars after the mission that brought him there is aborted and he is lost in the race to escape. The rest of the book is Mark’s attempts to survive, to find a way to live long enough for the next Mars mission to pick him up and bring him home. Much of the book follows Mark’s journal entries as he struggles with the basics of keeping the abandoned Mars base running and figuring out how to prolong his supplies (only enough for 300 days, or “sols” to use the correct Martian equivalent) to last the 3 years before the next astronauts arrive. There are issues of very basic physical necessities (oxygen, water, food) and some question about mental stamina. Fortunately, Mark is resourceful and blessed with NASA’s triple redundancy approach to life in space that brings extras for everything. Even enough seed potatoes and soil bacteria to give him a shot at starting a farm, which he does.
Take notes; there will be a quiz following …
Much of the book is in the style of classic sf “info dumps”, with Mark thinking out his problems, analyzing them in “educational” detail, and then finding a clever solution. (Well, Nick was certain that a potato diet would be lacking in diversity and nutritional items like protein, faulting Mark for not adding peas and beans to the mix when he sewed his first crop. The rest of us were more understanding of the need to maximize calories at the expense of a well-balanced diet.) Again and again, Weir tosses in tests (how can Mark make enough water for the potatoes?) and accidents (the airlock blows out!) to keep the reader interested in the story of one man against a hostile environment. Which, unfortunately, was a bit like eating nothing but potatoes for some Beamers.
Chris, Alan, and Nick all noted that the opening section of the book, exclusively Mark’s journal, was a trying stretch of reading. Until suddenly the viewpoint shifts to Earth, to NASA, to China, to the other Mars astronauts returning in their spacecraft. By opening up the book, these sections made the Mark-only portions more palatable for them. Alan noted that even the author seemed to have some difficulty sticking with Mark alone, as the journal often shows large time jumps, even 100s of sols. The rest of us did object that Mark and his snark could not be considered as entirely dull; Liz enjoyed his sense of humor, which also pleased the off-Mars faction.
And we could agree that the Mars alone sections were likely the strongest in the book, so it was more a matter of how much time away from Mark would add to the overall narrative. The interactions between the sections often produced the best effect, as Jon noted with the CNN talk show (The Mark Watney Report, its highest rated program) hosting a psychologist speculating on the dire state of Mark’s thoughts after being alone too long, which leads immediately to a journal entry questioning how Aquaman could control whales, which, after all, are *mammals*, as we know … Still, I liked the section in which we return to Mark alone, after his comm link to NASA is broken (Mylar strikes again!).
A cast of thousands?
Plus, we could find a number of other characters for whom to cheer or admire, such as Mindy, the NASA satellite operator who first notices signs of Mark’s activities, or Guo Ming, the head of the Chinese space agency, who sacrifices his latest science mission to loan its booster rocket to NASA for the political glory. But, there was something of a sameness about the off-Mars characters, as Jon noted, perhaps due to similar environment producing a plethora of “right stuff” attitudes or the author not having as much interest in them as in his main character. A few could stand out, like Rich Purnell, on the autism spectrum but self-aware of his social awkwardness enough to overcome it and help Mark home. Most, though, have snarky banter that, unfortunately, does not measure up to Mark’s, and occasionally sounds repetitive.
The focus on Mars does take us away from potentially interesting developments on Earth, too. The politics of the rescue are only briefly introduced, with most of it coming from a melodramatic confrontation after the NASA director decides against risking the Hermes crew returning to pick up Mark. I was sure that there would be more fall-out as future Mars missions were clearly being diverted, but only the Chinese director gets to make a somber statement about how the canceled probe will never fly, turning a lasting scientific legacy into a supply delivery run. Sure, in the emotions of rescuing Mark, some things will be lost, but I thought a bit more attention should be paid to the sacrifices made for him.
A nice place to visit
Still, we had very favorable impressions of The Martian, enough to give it ratings up in the 7, 8, 9 range, with the suggestion, as Carol said, that this book works well for both sf and non-sf readers alike. Jon thought that the exposition was scientifically accurate without being pedantic, using, for example, easy stand-ins for some technical jargon, such as Mark designating electrical units as “pirate-ninjas” since the actual terminology is unimportant or reminding readers that hydrazine is “rocket fuel”, a concept that drives home its nature (and ability to go “Boom!”) quickly and easily.
On the other crater wall, I liked that real NASA jargon and protocol was preserved, so Flight talked to CAPCOM via headsets in “roger, over” fashion, which stoked memories for those of us who got up at 6 a.m. to watch an Apollo launch back in the day. From both ends, though, the book does work and work well, either as a work of science fiction or space fiction (for those who may find it close enough to today to really be about tomorrow). And, if nothing else, we were pleased to discover that snark is, indeed, a key ingredient to staying alive in this sometimes hostile universe. Disco beat included or not.