‘Stayin’ Alive’ – The Martian by Andy Weir
We all have stories that we can come back to again and again and never be tired of. I have watched the film Jaws at least 100 times, but could happily sit down to watch it right now. I could read M.R. James’s short stories. I could read John Le Carré’s Tinker Sailor Soldier Spy. And the latest addition to this canon of so-good-I-never-get-sick-of-it is a 2011 book that became a huge Hollywood movie hit with critics and the box office alike: The Martian by Andy Weir.
All of these stories have one thing in common: aside from great characters or great writing or great insight, they are also good old-fashioned ‘cracking yarns’. They have a simple story that pulls you in and sweeps you along. The premise of The Martian can be summed up in a couple of sentences: astronauts on a Mars mission, fleeing a storm, have to abort and leave the planet, but they leave one behind. Botanist and mechanical engineer Mark Watney, finding that (as the movie tagline puts it) “help is only 140 million miles away”, has to survive long enough for NASA to rescue him, if they even can.
What makes this a cut above so much mainstream science fiction is that this is meticulously researched. Really, the detail is incredible. Despite never having directly asked anyone at NASA for input, Andy Weir’s book is considered accurate enough in its depiction of the space agency and its challenges for their website to describe it as “a technically accurate sci-fi” in which “tons of research and constant double-checking of math had to be done”, adding that doing so “exposed flaws in the protagonist’s plans, leading to a much more interesting story than if real-world physics and math have been hand-waved”. Even Bowie-singing Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is a fan.
And if the thought of a 369 page book charting the daily struggles of a man abandoned alone on a faraway planet sounds unbelievably bleak, it really isn’t. Quite the opposite. Part of this is because Weir has paid attention to one crucial aspect of science fact that so many similar stories ignore: the type of people who get to become astronauts. This is something Hadfield particularly sings the praises of on, saying that most space fiction fails to appreciate the level of trust and respect, not to mention competency, that needs to be in place before an astronaut is selected. Those movies where the crew are all bickering about pointless little things right from the beginning? They wouldn’t have even got selected for ground crew.
The Martian is actually an oddly feel-good book, because even though terrifying and seemingly impossible problems get thrown constantly at the hero, Mark Watney, he methodically works through them, finds solutions, and records them in his journal. And he does it with a sense of humour (something that Matt Damon, who plays him in the movie, nails to perfection).
And this forms the beating heart of the story. Watney is a survivor, and although he often gets overwhelmed by despair at his situation, he always manages to bounce back, and then see the funny side. A good deal of the book is taken up with his mock-despair at being stranded with nothing left but to listen to Commander Lewis’s disco collection. At one point, one of the NASA staff back on Earth muses about the psychological toll that Watney must be suffering, in such a deadly situation so far away from home, and asks ‘What must he be thinking, right now?’ And it turns out that, according to Watney’s journal, what he is actually thinking at that moment is: “How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.”
This must have come naturally to author Andy Weir because, when you hear him speak, you realise that… he basically is Mark Watney:
One of my favourite examples of this is when, in a podcast recorded at a comic convention, Weir is asked whether the public will be seeing any more of him at the convention, and replies that no, because “we’ll be eating unicorn at the Famous People’s Party that no one knows about…” Which sounds like something Mark Watney might say.
Having said all that, this book is more than a series of blackly comic jokes. It is also a deeply empathetic book, interested and invested in the inner worlds of all of its characters. Particularly the crew of the ship that leaves Watney behind, and the guilt they wrestle with for doing so. Interestingly (and hopefully this isn’t a spoiler) there aren’t really any villains in this story. Or at least, no human ones. Mars itself is perhaps the villain, and more than makes up for any humans.
Although, having removed the need for evil humans to boo and hiss at, this perhaps allowed Weir to write a book that is as much about humanity as it is about space. And it can be fairly profound about both. One of the last passages in the book is this:
“If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do.”
The fact that this is true, and why this is true, becomes a recurring theme. Billions of dollars and thousands of hours are spent trying to get Mark Watney home, and the book puts forward a convincing argument why this would happen.
And on a wider cultural level, this is absolutely a book of the moment. It reads like a subtle manifesto for the Maker generation: a celebration of problem-solving followed by more problem-solving, done with humour and enthusiasm. And as the bohemians of the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s give way to the artisans of the 00s and 10s, I believe this book beautifully captures the new mindset of the people who are radically changing the world we live in, from astronauts and authors to engineers, computer programmers, scientists, hobbyists… all of whom are working the problems in much the same way as Mark Watney does.
The film, incidentally, is great too, and ends with one little touch of comic genius that the book missed. The last thing we hear in the movie, as the credits roll, is a disco song. A song with lyrics that perfectly express what Lewis, the disco-loving mission commander who is forced to leave Watney on Mars, must believe Watney is feeling. The lyrics are:
“At first I was afraid, I was petrified / Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side / But then I spent so many nights thinking how you did me wrong / And I grew strong / And I learned how to get along / And so you’re back… / From outer space…”
And it’s called I Will Survive.