If the opening lines of The Martian by Andy Weir don’t don’t arrest your attention, I’m afraid it maybe time to stick you on the next ice flow and send you out to sea. “I’m pretty much f@cked. That’s my considered opinion. F@cked.” You wake up alone, injured and stranded on Mars. Your team has left you in an emergency evacuation and the next Ares team won’t be on Mars for another four years. “For the record, I didn’t die on Sol 6 . Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a national day of mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, ‘Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.’” Weir launches the narrative and his readers into a unique, smart, often hilarious survival story of a NASA astronaut marooned by his team on Mars. The pace of The Martian is fast — as fast as the wit of Mark Watney, the main character. But as humorous, smart and provoking as this novel is, it was easy to relate to in a pretty unexpected way. The novel is straightforward and harkens to the archetypal survival-against-all-odds plot, though it does it in a fresh, post-modern and educational fashion. While learning why NASA uses Sols on Mars but days on Earth and contemplating my eventual repatriation to the US after four years in Korea, I was completely occupied in the story and reflective of my own life experience. I can’t say that I’ve read too many books that can do both.
I heard about the book as a recommendation on the This Week in Tech (TWiT) podcast not as a book but as an audiobook. Brian Brushwood, a guest on the show, suggested the book during an Audible advertisement, one of the many advertisers that support the show. I usually skip over the ads, especially during Audible ads because they tend to run long. I don’t know why I hadn’t skipped ahead but I’m glad that I didn’t. I’m not that big into sci-fi, except where reality and reason govern the rules of the world created by the author, but Brushwood convinced me to look it up on Amazon. I was in between the fourth and fifth Game of Thrones books and boy did I need a break. The settings and characters of The Martian may be complex but the story is ages-old: the story of the stranded survivor.
I’ve heard The Martian explained as Robinson Crusoe on Mars and I suspect that to be the case, having read only a Children’s Library version of the latter many years ago. But Weir certainly takes the narrative tradition of stranded individuals, straps it to a rocket and plays out the thought experiment of setting Castaway on Mars, replacing Wilson with the NASA’s abandoned Pathfinder and the ocean with the cold, dead atmosphere of the red planet. The concept demands the suspension of disbelief upon embarking on Watney’s journey but Weir’s wicked wit and knowledge of physics, chemistry and botany tighten up the story to a realistic thriller that often had me on the edge of my seat. Watney and the rest of the Ares 3 crew are sent on (you guessed it) NASA’s third mission to Mars to experiment with greenhouse food production, take samples of rocks and otherwise just be astronauts on Mars. Early on in the story, a sandstorm blasts through their camp, which injures Watney and separates him from the rest of the crew as they attempt to evacuate, end the mission early and head back to Earth. The story then volleys between Watney and his brilliant efforts to stay alive on an unforgiving planet, NASA’s mission control and the rest of the Ares crew as they head back home, suffering from the loss of their friend and teammate. I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say that Watney survives but how he survives and the way Weir weaves hardship and obstacles that Watney must reason his way through makes The Martian a page turner, one in which I finished just shy of three days…and it’s almost 400 pages.
Andy Weir is a smart dude. Not only does he tell the story in such a way that makes the reader feel smart but he makes them laugh at the same time. It’s hard to explain, but he rewards the reader in a way that makes them feel like they discovered the solutions that kept Watney alive along with him. That is a fantastic bit of storytelling, to make the reader feel the sensation of discovery along with the main character. This kind of awe-inspiring discovery came to me at a very special time, my reading intersecting with the show I was watching simultaneously, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. The style that both Weir and DeGrasse Tyson use, blurring the lines between student and audience reminds me of the adage, “a teacher can only open a door; it is up to the student to walk through”. What they both do so well is disguise the open door as entertainment so the audience may go through the educational experience in the name of entertainment. I know that The Martian and Cosmos serve different ends of education and entertainment but it is their convergence that I find to be so powerful. I see a renaissance in science education and, after the doom and gloom of the 2008 recession, people once again have hope enough to look up to the stars for education, entertainment and inspiration.
South Korea is, for all intents and purposes, an island nation surrounded by ocean on three sides and the most heavily fortified border on Earth to its north. I have lived here for four years, having travelled abroad four times within that time. For only five days of those four years have I been back to the US and let me say this: four years is a long time to wait, even if I can breathe the air outside, go to the store or watch Netflix. These four years have put Watney’s own circumstances, thinking that he had to wait four years for the next Ares mission, into a perspective that is almost crushing. It added gravity to the story (pun slightly intended) that made a book about a guy stranded on Mars just a little more relevant. My wife and I are in a bit of a countdown of our own. Come July 7, we’ll be going in to the US embassy for her final interview for a residence visa (she’s Korean). She will quit her job by the end of July. We’ve been eating simple Korean food every day. We sleep on the floor (just as we have been for the last two years) every night and lie awake talking about our life together in the US. But it’s hard to actually think we’ll be on a plane, flying to the States on September 12th, after four long years on this peninsula. I have adapted in ways that will not be apparent until I get home. Granted, nothing I have gone through is as dramatic as what Watney went through to survive the red planet but all the same, in some small way, in some great leap of the imagination, I identified with Watney; the survival, the loneliness, the triumphs, the boredom, it was all so familiar as he talked about it, he on Mars and me in South Korea. Almost every word rang true and in that way, the book was nurturing to another wayward soul cast out into the unfamiliar and ready to head home.
I guess what I want to say about The Martian is that it hit me, stimulating my heart and my imagination and so little often has a booked affected me thus that typing this now, I wish I could experience it all over again, as if reading it again for the first time. And that’s why I would recommend this to anyone who has not read it. You who have not read it, are in the enviable position of having heart and mind stirred in a way that is genuine, funny, smart and principally unique. Never give up on adventure. Look for Mars but aim for the stars.