A good book, if you go in with the right expectations.
New York: Crown Publishers, 2011.
$25.00 (hardback), $15.00 (paperback)
Sometimes, and maybe I’m alone in this, I wonder to myself about what I would do if a catastrophic event were to occur at that very moment. This happens anywhere and everywhere. One second, I’m standing idly before the hotdog buns in the grocery store, the next I’m thinking about how many of the item shelves it would take to block the doors. You know, to keep out the zombie hordes. Everybody thinks about this, right? Right.
This kind of thinking eventually leads me to consider my own set of survival skills, or perhaps, the lack thereof. I pick up a can of green beans and imagine myself trying to open it with a rock. Or I look at the cuts in the meat department, and I wonder whether I could replicate these if tomorrow I had to start surviving on my own. Then my wife tells me to hurry up because I’ve done this about eight times already and five o’clock traffic is about to hit.
Sure, I’m an Eagle Scout, and I have quite a bit more survival training than the average person, but if it came down to it, even I would be hard pressed to last more than a few weeks if a crashing meteor were to send American civilization back into the Stone Age (that is, unless I were in a very particular set of pre-planned circumstances). We all would. That’s not an indictment of how ‘soft’ society has become; rather, it’s the inevitable side-effect of a developed culture. American society advances in other areas because we don’t all have to specialize in hunting/gathering/farming on a daily basis. Still, even though most of us wouldn’t know a shiitake mushroom from the ones that make us have three-hour conversations with a hedgehog named Gandalf, modern American culture is fascinated by the concept of survival beyond an Apocalyptic event, be it biological, nuclear, or meteoric. The most popular of apocalypse scenarios, at least for the past decade, has been that of zombies covering the Earth, thanks to popular shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead (now on Season 6), or novels like Max Brooks’s World War Z (2006). Did you know he is Mel Brooks’s son? Yes, that Mel Brooks. You can’t make this stuff up.
Removing zombies from the equation leaves us with a whole slew of movies, television shows, video games, and books devoted to survival in hostile environments after society has crumbled. From the National Geographic Channel’s Doomsday Preppers (2012-2014) to Man vs. Wild (2006-2011) with Bear Grylls (whose main survival skill seemed to be drinking his own urine strained through some discarded piece of clothing), and even Robert Zemeckis’s Castaway (2000), television and film of the past decade have done their part to make the survivalist genre a cash cow.
Video games, where you actually engage in survivalist activities rather than simply watch them, (I’ll avoid the terms ludonarrative and emergent gameplay for now) have also recently left their mark on the genre. Even a cursory glance at Steam reveals any number of popular titles in the survival-crafting category (most of which are in early access): Subnautica, Stranded Deep, The Forest, Don’t Starve, The Long Dark. And like the grandfather who never quite learned to quit partying, Minecraft continues to dominate the sales charts at 70 million copies and climbing. That’s right. Seventy. Million. Notch could literally Scrooge McDuck his money at this point, especially since he recently sold Mojang to Microsoft for 2 billion dollars.
The point here is, from movies, to television, to video games, the largest forms of popular entertainment have played their part in establishing the survivalist genre. And, what is clear from these examples is the fact that these forms of media weren’t artificially producing this demand. They were responding to an underlying current that already existed.
I give this brief context because I’ve recently been reading Andy Weir’s first novel, The Martian. Initially published in 2011, Weir’s book is seeing renewed interest now that the film version, starring Mat Damon, has hit theaters (see my review of the film here). It’s a book with a simple premise: a man is stranded alone on Mars, and he must attempt to survive until he can eventually devise some means of escape. This simplicity is reflected in the minimalism of the novel’s sparse title, and in the picture on its cover of the lone astronaut framed against the red dust of the Martian landscape. In short, this is a novel about an individual’s survival amidst the most hostile environment imaginable: that of another planet.
Weir’s literary progenitors here are Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Johann David Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson (1812). He has more recent cousins in books like Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild (1996) and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), but it’s clear Weir is harkening back the genre’s roots with this tale. His protagonist, Mark Watney, is completely alone on Mars, and like Crusoe, he must learn to tame the elements by using what few tools he has on hand. Unlike Crusoe, however, Watney is entirely alone. There will be no “my man Friday” to assuage Watney’s sense of isolation. This goes double for the Swiss Family Robinson connection. Honestly, who would want to be trapped on a desert island and spend years with only their family for company? For most of us, it would need to be a BIG island.
Despite this solitude, one of the novel’s selling points is the narrative voice of its main character. While it isn’t told entirely from Watney’s viewpoint, I’d wager at least 80% of the book is (I won’t get into where the rest comes from. Spoilers and such.). And, since these are daily logs, the implication is that we are reading these events long after the fact, though it is not clear whether Watney has survived. Because of the circumstances, one would think an impending sense of doom would darken Watney’s mood and, thus, the tone of the book. Instead, surprisingly, Watney stays upbeat, and his sense of humor carries the story along even in its dryer moments. This humor shines most often in his evaluation of the few entertainment options his previous crew left behind in their evacuation. Suffice it to say, disco music, ’70s and ’80s sitcoms, and Agatha Christie novels make Mars a rather eclectic entertainment hub.
Speaking of dry narratives, we should also talk about what it is that sets Weir’s story apart from earlier novels of the genre (besides the location). While Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson focus on the physical details of survival—building shelters, felling trees, tilling land, growing crops, even some animal husbandry—Weir’s novel often ignores these details, for the most part, and instead focuses almost entirely upon the science of survival. It makes for a nice point of departure, especially since the hostile environment mentioned before is so drastically different from the deserted island motif. But, the problem is that Weir often gets a bit too caught up in the science of Watney’s daily struggle, and the narrative can get bogged down by these scientific details. In other words, The Martian‘s greatest strength, the narrative element that sets it apart, also, at times, becomes it most glaring flaw.
In making actual science (rather than Star Wars/Trekish science-fiction science) the centerpiece of his novel, Weir is writing what is known in the biz as “Hard Science Fiction.” And the audience for such writing is rabid in every sense of the word: they want it, they want it right, and they’ll eat you alive if you get it wrong. Weir clearly knows his audience, and he’s meeting their demands with immediate, sometimes grueling, scientific explanations for everything Watney does. Rather than improving the narrative, however, Weir’s hard science approach often slows the novel to a crawl. This type of writing also sometimes transforms the tone of Watney’s daily logs into a lecture rather than a record of his daily activities. He often reminds his readers of certain scientific principles in a tone that is almost teacherly. This begs the question: whom are these logs for, especially if he needs to teach science to his readers? Watney clearly already knows these principles, and we can safely assume NASA has a basic grasp of science. These shifts in tone are jarring, and they pull readers out of Watney’s world. The result is that the novel regularly sounds like a writing exercise (where Weir was working these issues out for fun on his own time) which he eventually morphed into a novel. I found this to be most prevalent at the novel’s beginning, of all places, and I would encourage readers who are struggling through the opening chapters to be persistent. The story takes a turn after about fifty pages, and it picks up quite nicely thereafter.
On this note of narrative problems, we also need to talk about Weir’s difficulties with the first person. When I went into this novel, I expected it to be a story about isolation, struggle against the elements, and at least some opportunities for the protagonist to examine his life in trying circumstances. After all, isn’t this the natural human reaction when confronted with solitude? A lack of outside stimulation often turns the mind inward, and there is no better writer’s tool for self-reflection than the first person narrative. Yet, Watney’s ability to think about himself, to think through how this extended loneliness has changed him, or possibly changed the way he understands social interactions and personal relationships, is almost completely absent. In fact, I could only find one place in the entire novel where Weir even attempts such a moment, and it is disappointingly short (spoilers here, so skip to the next paragraph if you want a virgin reading):
Once I’d shut everything down, the interior of the Hab was eerily silent. I’d spent 449 sols listening to its heaters, vents, and fans. But now it was dead quiet. It was a creepy kind of quiet that’s hard to describe. I’ve been away from the noises of the Hab before, but always in a rover or an EVA suit, both of which have noisy machinery of their own … I never realized how utterly silent Mars is. It’s a desert world with practically no atmosphere to convey sound. I could hear my own heartbeat. Anyway, enough waxing philosophical.
Moments like these are what this novel desperately needed. If only Weir could have thought a little less about Watney’s scientific acumen, and a little more about his experience as a human being, I think The Martian could have been something special.
But hey, this is a fun sci-fi read, right? Is it even fair to hold Weir to such a standard? Well, Weir has other problems with his narrative style. It came as no surprise to me when I learned that Weir is a scientist first and a novelist second. There is almost no aesthetic description in the novel at all. One of the main reasons literature exists is to introduce readers to new experiences, to put them into lives and locations that are beyond the scope of their daily circles. In this case, Weir falls pretty far short of the mark. Looking at Watney’s journal entries, we learn at length about how to turn hydrazine into water without the necessary tools, but we never know what color his bed sheets are. We don’t know the physical sensations of walking on Mars; we don’t know the emotional experience of watching our sun rise on another planet, but we know the math behind how long it takes to run down a rover battery. While I’m willing to give Weir somewhat of a pass on this (it’s difficult to make aesthetic description sound organic in a first person narrative), I’m also disappointed that there wasn’t more balance in Weir’s focus.
In the end, though, I don’t think The Martian is a bad novel, but I don’t find it particularly good either. It’s a book that I’ve read, and even though I had fun with it, I’ll probably forget it by the end of the year. It’s a book that won’t change your life, and it isn’t going to use persistence amidst adverse experience to rethink the human condition (no Hemingway here). It a simple story, with a complex solution, and a far too simple take away. Yet, despite these flaws, if you go in with the right expectations—the kind that I’ve tried to provide here—you’ll find yourself drawn back to Weir’s story over and over again, to read what goofball turned astronaut Mark Watney is up to, and how he plans on getting back home.