[7 May 2014]
Some months ago, a New York Times Magazine article noted that chronic boredom might be more of a threat than anything else to astronauts traveling to Mars, because the trip would take eight months. Andy Weir’s sci-fi novel The Martian begins with an astronaut stranded on Mars, and he will definitely not bore you. It’s a rocket ride of page-turning suspense and survival about a space-era Robinson Crusoe. Think of it as Gravity meets the red planet.
The intriguing premise is that a crew of six US astronauts lands the third manned mission on Mars but must evacuate when a monster dust storm erupts. They unintentionally leave behind their lowest ranked crew member Mark Watney, a smart-ass guy who is the mission’s “Mr. Fix-it” and luckily, its botanist. The others thought he was dead. When he recovers consciousness and realizes he’s marooned, he must figure out how to stay alive, tell his NASA bosses on Earth that he’s OK, and find a way to get back to his home planet.
His tale is told through Watney’s spirited, funny log entries and other transcripts. Never mind questioning how even a trained space traveler has the wherewithal to jot down humorous comments once he realizes his dreadful plight on Day 6 – referred to as Sol 6, since Mars days are different from Earth days—of the mission. At the very start of his log, he wonders if his Wikipedia page “will read ‘Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.’”
He is not dead yet, though, and Weir is clever enough to make readers believe that his survival, while seemingly hopeless, is at least a possibility. I have no idea whether Weir’s science-based explanations of space travel and Mars missions are valid, but he convinced me to keep reading and to root for his hero.
As voluble and youthful as the survivor of the Redford film All Is Lost was silent and aged, Mark spends maybe 30 seconds being “disappointed” that his ride home has departed. His first entry begins: “I’m pretty much fucked.” Then, after a good night’s sleep, this can-do American plunges ahead toward a future on Mars that will last a good deal longer than the original mission’s planned month-long stay.
It took the Ares 3 spaceship 124 days to reach Mars (about four months – half the time mentioned in that “boredom” article). Before this spaceship left Earth, however, there were 14 advance unmanned missions, which deposited on Mars the supplies the astronauts would need to live and explore. They included the Hab, which is the crew’s dorm and communications center, and two “rovers” for jeeping on the Mars terrain.
So Mark has a “home”, an all-terrain vehicle, access to extra spacesuits, tools, some water, and food for the entire crew of six designed to last 50 days, or 300 days for this lone diner. But since the next Ares mission won’t arrive for four years, he would starve long before that; he figures human error could likely do him in first.
The great fun of The Martian is watching Mark, a hardy Chicagoan, as he refuses to give up. He tackles one obstacle after another, starting with the wound that nearly killed him. Turns out all the astronauts had emergency medical training; he stitches himself up.
As a botanist, he figures out how he might grow additional food from the small samples of dirt, the actual potatoes NASA sent as part of the crew’s Thanksgiving dinner, and human waste for fertilizer. (“My asshole is doing as much to keep me alive as my brain.”) He decides to create water from available oxygen and hydrogen, an excruciatingly dangerous experiment that could literally explode in his face. He repairs solar cells, re-purposes items from his Ares mission and strategizes about building a crude communications system so Earth will eventually discover that he is, in fact, still alive.
Is he lonely? Wouldn’t you be, millions of miles from the nearest human? Still, this guy is not one to mope; in fact, in one of his earliest log entries he wonders how the Cubs are doing.
About five weeks into Mark’s Mars visit, Weir lets us see how the home planet and NASA are handling Mark’s “death”. The extra perspective from Earth is welcome and necessary, as Mark devises ingenious solutions to improve his odds of returning to see his beloved Cubs play again.
Aided by an unusually attentive NASA satellite imagery watcher, Mark eventually is able to communicate with Earth and to help concoct an escape plan. I can’t say how good or far-fetched Weir’s ideas, are but the important thing is, they sound credible. Especially the simple ones. Need to start a fire when everything around you is non-flammable? Look for your Catholic colleague’s hidden wooden cross. As for Mark’s incredibly detailed technical fixes, readers more engineering-savvy than I will have to judge how realistic they are.
Like any great survival story, this one hits speed bumps and setbacks. Mark risks killing himself time and again. He plays with stuff like plutonium. He ruins the communications setup with which he contacts the NASA folks. He gets knocked unconscious again.
The boredom issue does arise. All crew members were allowed to bring a personal “data-stick” of digital entertainment. Mark recovers the (female) mission commander’s stick, only to discover it contains reruns of ancient “crappy TV shows” and disco music. In his downtime, he’s stuck watching Three’s Company.
Suspense really kicks in many months after his arrival, when Mark must execute a plan to boost himself off the planet and into the arms of a rescue team. The outcome is very up in the air, literally and figuratively, right until the last few pages.
It will come as no surprise that the book already has been optioned by a film company. (Sandra Bullock as Commander Lewis?) What is a surprise is that The Martian started out as a self-published, serialized book on Weir’s own website. Next came an indie ebook. The outcome once he found himself an agent? A six-figure deal from a “legit” publisher. I’m never going to make light of self-publishing, or Mars travel, again.