Voracious reader and DPhil candidate blogs about books and scholarly life.
Self-publishing still carries a stigma. Did not a single publisher find this book worthwhile? Why not? Was the author still arrogant enough to believe that their book did have some value? But, of course, publishers let a book slip every once in a while – think of how many rejections J.K. Rowling and Stephen King had to deal with for their debuts. Andy Weir simply avoided all this hassle and self-published The Martian in 2011. Then, in 2014, Random House thought he was a cool writer after all, and the biggest sci-fi hit of the year was born.
Since the movie rights have been sold, I guess it is okay to repeat here the extremely accurate film comparison that has been made in advertisements of the book: The Martian is Castaway meets Apollo 13. Mark Watney, one of six astronauts on the third manned mission to Mars, becomes stranded on the planet on his own. He keeps a log of his scramble to survive while Earth and his crew think he is dead – until more than two months later, when satellite pictures show the powerless onlookers that he’s been doing perfectly fine on his own.
Weir has an immense store of NASA-related knowledge, to the point where it’s quite impossible for the uninitiated reader to see where the current science ends and the fiction begins, especially now that NASA has been recruiting people to actually go to Mars. His attention to technical detail is immense, and woven into the story very well – these minute details make it possible for Weir to create extreme situations which sound impossible to survive. With one genius find after another, Weir lets his astronaut always manage just one more impossible feat, which is so well thought through that the reader has no choice but to be impressed and accept it.
Mark Watney is an astronaut. Astronauts are supposed to be geniuses, and Watney very much confirms this idea – he stays alive on Mars for months. (It is no small feat for a writer to write about a genius: this shows that Weir must have been even cleverer himself. See only the later Artemis Fowl books by Eoin Colfer for an indication of how awkward it gets when an author creates a character smarter than himself.) However, we also get to see another side of Mark Watney from his logbook, one that matches the astronaut stereotype a little less. Watney is an extremely cocky guy with an awkwardly in-your-face sense of humour. He’s not talking to his log, he is bantering. His style of writing is more common in blogs run by opinionated nerdy twentysomethings (like me) who like to swear a lot and scatter gifs and screenshots all over their writing (not like me).
Well, maybe this is what the next generation of astronauts will write like, influenced by the incessant ramblings we are putting on the internet right now, but it does make it hard for the reader to really start liking this guy and sympathizing with him. He doesn’t sound like someone you’d want to spend all your money on.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what Earth decides to do – spend truckloads of money to save Watney. This just screams unfairness in the face of every reader with a grain of social awareness – here the fiction comes too close to the real issues we are facing in our world today. Seeing attempts to send food in rockets to this one man on Mars who will otherwise starve, and subsequent rescue attempts in which the lives of multiple other people are put at great risk – hey, I’ve found another parallel, Saving Private Ryan!
Fortunately, Watney is not entirely selfish. He at least tries to rationalize why Earth is so eager to get him back.
“hundreds of millions of dollars. All to save one dorky botanist. Why bother?
Well, okay. I know the answer to that.”
See why I couldn’t be friends with this guy? But anyway, his reasoning is interesting:
“Part of it might be what I represent: progress, science, and the interplanetary future we’ve dreamed of for centuries. But really, they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true.”
Isn’t it incredible how someone so intelligent can at the same time be so oblivious? Watney here leaves out the crucial element of visibility. He is a named individual whose face everyone on Earth will know. If someone that famous dies, people will be awfully upset. If a thousand people on Earth are massacred, and we don’t know a single victim by name and face, people will not care. Humans have a basic instinct to help out those who belong to their group. Here is the only flaw that can be found in the book (well, apart from the German astronaut who is apparently too stupid to know the English word ‘yes’) – readers will feel awkwardly guilty over wanting to get the Martian rescued.