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Written by Andy Weir
Publication Date: February 11, 2014
Cover Price: $15.00
Let’s get the opinion stuff out of the way: The Martian, the book upon which the recent movie starring Matt Damon is based, is pretty fantastic. The premise, like most science-fiction, doesn’t initially come across as compelling. There’s an astronaut named Mark Watney who, through chance and misfortune, was left for dead on Mars by his team. He’s got to find a way to let humanity know he’s still around, and he’s got to figure out how to survive for as long as possible, hoping all the way that NASA can figure out a way to get him back home.
Rather than yet another science fiction blockbuster epic, Andy Weir‘s novel eschews the grandiose space empire stuff in favor of focus and intimacy. In that respect, The Martian is a minor work with major scope. The author achieves this in some interesting ways. There’s a focus on the “how” things get done. Put another way, Weir’s protagonist, Mark, delivers the action of the story to the reader with both high-level strategic sci-fi love (“I have to generate food”) and then drills down into the tactics of how that’s achieved (“I’ve created 192 square meters of farmland and have 600 liters of water for the potatoes I’m about to plant, which should last me 200 Sols beyond my NASA rations”).
This is where Weir’s best work — his ability to create intimacy between reader and character — comes in. Through Mark’s logs, readers begin to delight in what’s typically thought of as the mundane: the geekery of how to build bombs and how to make water from scratch. The inside baseball of how to grow food and survive in the most inhospitable place ever visited.
I don’t usually like to bring up the real-life/behind the scenes circumstances of a work, but The Martian is pretty noteworthy for its Internet genesis. Weir self-published the book, a piece at a time on his website where it was wildly popular before getting picked up by a publishing house that turned it into the version of the novel I enjoyed and that was eventually optioned into the wide-release film directed by Ridley Scott. It’s not clear what happened in the editing process, but what we were left with was a few truly great characterizations in Watney and Doctor Kapoor, but stereotypes everywhere else. Females Mindy Park and Annie Montrose play the timid East Asian geek and bitchy PR Woman, respectively. The Mars mission team has a hard-nosed female leader, and a sexy, nearly wordless lady oddly named Johansson. There isn’t a single person of African descent in the entire novel despite the fact that the face of NASA today is a lot more colorful than, say, the depiction represented in the decades old classic, The Right Stuff. The eponymous film does some work to correct this, but it’s odd that the book, which is focused on the near future, misses on this. With today’s Millennial generation being at once the largest, most diverse, and most integrated, it’s surprising that Weir’s work seeks cultural relevance and yet takes little to none of that pertinent social information into account.
And that brings me to another quibble — the future. Without a doubt, one of Weir’s most prominent strengths in the work is the way he focuses on near-future science and the technology it provides him, rather than chase the typical spaceships and energy-gun tropes of sci-fi. There are no flying cars. The protagonist cuts hard objects with drills rather than lasers. Faster than light travel is, mercifully, off the table. The mundane nature of the technology Weir chooses to represent grounds the story in reality, allowing the reader to focus on and emotionally connect with the protagonist — and that’s a great thing.
But this is NASA. Today, in 2015, I verbally turn my kitchen lights on and off with a plug and play installation of less than $150 in consumer technology. Now, I’m a geek to be sure, but one would imagine that with the realities of Amazon’s Echo, Apple’s Siri, Google Now, and Microsoft’s Cortana, the protagonist, Mark, would have been raised in a world where the successor technologies to the aforementioned to the growing voice interfaces we have today would not only work better, but be ubiquitous. Where’s Watney’s digital companion? Don’t get me wrong — atmospheric regulators, water reclaimers, and the RTG are pretty cool bits of tech, but I actually lost a bit of suspended disbelieve when the author mentions older technologies like USB drives and LCDs. SONY released commercially viable, true LED displays in 2012 (Crystal LED), which would not be worth mentioning except for the fact that NASA, whom the author constantly praises for using only the highest quality, best engineered materials available, wouldn’t commission an LCD for a device designed to work in the field… on Mars. And with mobile technology at the forefront of today’s technology, it seems like an oversight that Watney didn’t have action to a handheld gaming device to pass the time.
At first, this quibble may seem like inside baseball for tech nerds. But then the thing about The Martian is that it’s clearly a book written for tech nerds, with general audiences as an afterthought — especially the first quarter of the book. While the story is entertaining and compelling, the author constantly misses opportunities to give the reader a peek into the stuff we’ll come to expect in the very near future.
Despite these quibbles, The Martian is, nonetheless, a significant achievement in contemporary science-fiction. This story has a few important explosions, but overall doesn’t concern itself with set-pieces that are meant to stun and awe the reader’s visual imagination along the lines of what the very godfather of modern science fiction, Isaac Asimov, referred to as “eye sci-fi,” which is when the “science fiction deals primarily with images, so we might call it image-science-fiction. Since the show-business people and journalists who talk about image-science fiction refer to it, abominably, as sci-fi, suppose we call image-science-fiction i-sci-fi or, better yet, eye-sci-fi.”
Rather, Weir’s meticulous attention to technical detail, alongside his deep focus on a single character alongside that character’s struggle to both reconnect with humanity and grow as a character, eschews the trend, in our real world, of smart appliances, and magical technologies that “just work.” In Weir’s very real world, very little “just works” and sometimes things fail (quite miserably). The characters, however, are all built of sterner stuff than the usual drama because despite setbacks and seemingly certain death, they simply don’t give up.
And that’s what makes The Martian such a success. It reminds readers of the enduring spirit of humanity. And it does it in a way that could easily inspire future generations to move out of their comfortable, mobile Internet-connected comfort zones, pushing their way to solve real problems– whether here on Earth, or somewhere else within that awesome Final Frontier.