“The Martian” – An Ingenious Sci-fi Survival Thriller
Andy Weir (born on June 16th 1972) worked as a programmer for several software companies like AOL, Blizzard. He was a fan of hard sci-fi novels and liked the works of authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. He began writing short sci-fi stories in his 20’s and published most of them in his own website. In his late 30’s, he started doing extensive research on botany, orbital mechanics, Mars’ atmosphere and many real scientific things for incorporating them into his debut novel. He wanted his work to be heavy on the science aspect, and light on the sci-fi. But, he only published this novel on his website as a self-published, serialized book. The book garnered attention, which later lead to be published as independent e-book (he put the book on amazon, and fixed the price at $0.99, which is lowest possible selling price in Amazon) . More and more glowing review, made Andy Weir to find himself an agent. And, that’s when a big shot publishing agent took over and offered Weir a six-figure deal. A little bit of edit and polishing made Weir’s “The Martian”, the phenomenal sci-fi novel of the decade.
Four days after the hardcover publication, Hollywood called for movie rights, and Weir was once again offered a low to mid six figure deal. Ridley Scott, the veteran director best known for his dystopian sci-fi movies – “Alien”, “Blade Runner”, took the director job, while Matt Damon was casted to play the protagonist (the film is going to release on October 2nd). So, when a fictional work gets this attention within a short period of time, the immediate question that would rise in our mind: Does the novel live up to the hype? ‘Mostly, yes’ would be the answer. At its core, “The Martian” doesn’t possess the ‘never-before-heard’ original story. The story structure is similar to what we have read in “Robinson Crusoe” or what we have seen in “Cast Away” & “Gravity”.
The novel starts in the 6th day of the 31-day (days are referred as sols, since Mars days are different from Earth days) stay in Mars. There has already been two successful manned missions to Mars (known as ARES missions). The six member crew has dropped off in place called ‘Acidalia Planitia’ (for ARES 3 mission) and are going about their just like the previous days. But, a soon a dust storm hits erupts, which escalates to dangerous levels. The crew members are safe inside the Hab (NASA’s exploration habitat), but the storm might tip over their ascent vehicle. So, NASA orders the crew to abort their mission and to mount up, reach space ship Hermes (in Mars’ orbit), and head back to home. As the distraught space explorers head to the ascent vehicle, Mark Watney, the botanist and mechanical engineer, is knocked by debris and goes flying.
Watney is impaled by a satellite antenna, which tears through his bio-monitor computer in the suit. Since there are no vital signs that Watney is alive, the crew members launch their craft, rendezvousing with ‘Hermes’. However, with few minor injuries, Watney survives and slowly crawls back to the habitat. He has food and water to last a month for six people. The storm has terminated all forms of contact back to Earth. The next Mars mission is not due for four years, and ARES 4 crew members land in a place called “Schiaparelli”, which is 3,200 kilometers from where Watney lives. The only thing that is abundant is his oxygen reserves, which is extracted (by oxygenator) from the Martian CO2 atmosphere. Watney’s survival tale begins there, and he uses his sound engineering and botanical skills to find answers to innumerable troubles that threaten to kill him.
When we start reading a popular survival story, we could predict what the ending is going to be, and that could make us lose interest on the premise at some point. But, Andy Weir in “Martian” throws in intriguing hazards from page to page, which not only keeps us on the edge, but also gives us some cracking lessons in astrophysics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, Botany, and space travel. Weir scares with prospect of suffocation and starvation, while most of the red planet stories are littered with extra-terrestrial monsters. The trials and tribulations Watney runs into are within the realm of the question: ‘what dangers are possible, if we in the near-future send a manned mission to Mars’. Of course, I don’t know if Weir’s solutions to the problems Watney runs into were scientifically accurate, but the explanations are convincing enough to make it a tense page-turner.
The novel’s chief appeal lies in the characterization of Mark Watney and his chuckle-worthy witty dialogues. Through his detailed log entries, Watney explains how he is going to survive; what he is trying to do; and why he chose to solve a particular problem in such way. Although the first-person narrative gets a bit repetitive and has a tendency a go deep into science, Mark’s inexhaustible, heroic attitude keeps it engaging. The manner in which Watney keeps on innovating, after facing various challenges, is absolutely astounding. The novel’s perspective broadens with sub-plots involving NASA staff (after Watney is rediscovered through satellites) and the Hermes crew members. NASA perspective was a welcome change because it showcases how scientific geniuses work their way through giant bureaucratic machine. The crew members’ perspective is a bit mawkish and provides no emotional heft.
If I have to point out a flaw, then it has to be the way Weir treats existential matters. Loneliness, self-doubt, resignation aren’t explored as much as we have read in other iconic, survival stories. Watney easily eradicates those throbbing existential questions by just watching 70’s TV shows and reading Agatha Christie’s mysteries or by dropping one-liners and f-bombs. This novel may not become the reread literary classic, but it succeeds in providing us a high-quality entertainment. “The Martian” is a must read for anyone who has a remote interest in science.