I’ve been traveling a lot for work lately, and instead of listening to the same twenty songs on every radio station I pass, I’ve opted for an Audible subscription, so I can entertain myself with audiobooks. My first choice was The Martian, by Andy Weir. The Martian follows in a well-established heritage of survivalist fiction, but in a way that counts as science fiction. There’s a movie coming out next month starring Matt Damon and a bunch of other famous actors, which is what initially inspired me to “read” the book. The premise for The Martian is simple: American astronaut Mark Watney is left for dead on the surface of Mars when his team is forced to flee a massive dust storm… except whoops, Mark’s actually alive. What follows is a story of questions: Can Mark survive? Will he ever be able to contact Earth, and if he does, can he even survive long enough to come and get him? How much is one person’s life worth, anyway?
I won’t spoil the ending for you, I promise. But I do want to take a look at how The Martian is a wonderful, thought-provoking new addition to the world of science fiction on multiple levels. Science fiction isn’t just about advanced technology and space stuff; the real hallmark of the genre pushes for answers to the big questions of life in new ways. It imagines what could be, not what is. The Martian has a universal quality to its story, and that’s what makes it a success.
Minor spoilers for The Martian below the jump.
At first glance, it might look like The Martian is yet another book about a white, heterosexual, upper-middle class, Western man triumphing over adversity, this time in the form of nature. We know that story and frankly, many of us are tired of it. This isn’t to say that those stories are bad. It’s just that we have so many of them. In Robinson Crusoe (a novel from 1719), Lord of the Flies (a novel from 1975), Cast Away (a movie from 2000) men (and boys) are stuck on tropical islands and have to make the best of it. Our leads triumph over or succumb to the forces of nature until they’re rescued. Other popular stories center on going out into the great wilderness (usually someplace that looks like Canada) and trying to survive. The Call of the Wild (1903) is the story of a domesticated sled dog learning to dominate and survive among wild dogs. Hatchet (1987) is the story of a boy who crash-lands in the Canadian wilderness with nothing but a hatchet and his wits. Into the Wild (1996) tells the story of a man attempting to survive in the Alaskan wilderness. The great granddaddy of them all, The Odyssey, is the story of a man shipwrecked on an island and trying to get home, probably composed around the 8th century BC. So you can see, not only is there a long history of “Man fights against Nature to survive” stories, but they’re fairly popular in our modern literary and cultural canon.
But those stories aren’t really science fiction. They’re meant to be realistic and modern, not push the technological envelope. They deal with themes of humanity’s struggle to survive and indomitable will to live, and what our place is in the natural world now that we’ve decided to “civilize” ourselves. The Martian participates in the greater survivalist story tradition; after all, the moment Mark wakes up abandoned on the surface of Mars he has to use what he can to start surviving the next few minutes, few hours, few days, turning into weeks and months. Mark Watney is a man constantly fighting against the natural forces of Mars to get and maintain air, warmth, water, food, and shelter. In many ways he’s meant to be the everyman from the survivalist tradition. He’s an American guy who isn’t special, other than being an astronaut. Mark is a botanist and a mechanical engineer, but the lowest-ranked member of his team. As he ruefully remarks at the start of the story, he’d only be in charge of the mission if everyone else were dead or gone.
The story certainly plays on our stereotypes of who is the normal, standard human, which can get rather annoying and even offensive to people who don’t fit the narrow white, male, heterosexual, etc. categories. But as the novel unfolds, we see how Mark’s most remarkable qualities are his humor and his resourcefulness: qualities that at first make him the least-important member of his team, but later prove to be absolutely critical to his survival. Mark becomes an individual, not a stand-in for humanity. The story isn’t about whether or not humanity can survive in the face of the strange forces of Martian nature, but if Mark Watney can. It’s clear that not just anyone could do this if they regressed hard enough back to their natural state. Only someone like Mark really even stands a chance. It’s a fine but important distinction between what’s standard for the survivalist genre and what’s more common in a genre like science fiction.
Once Mark is able to (somewhat miraculously) establish communication with NASA, The Martian then takes a further step away from the survivalist genre. The focus of the story shifts from “Can Mark survive on Mars?” to “Can we rescue him, or should we even try?”. It becomes an examination of humanity’s obligation and desire to save one of its own. If cobbling-together a mission to Mars to save Mark is even possible, given all of the technological and natural difficulties inherent to any space mission, is it even worth our time and resources? Once NASA discovers Mark is alive, it’s only a matter of time before the whole world is totally enthralled with his story. But even our cast of minor characters are populated by women, people of color, and representatives of multiple faith traditions. Venkat Kapoor, director of NASA’s Mission to Mars is Indian and a Hindu (his name is changed to Vincent in the movie, because of course it is). Melissa Lewis is the competent, self-sacrificing commander of Mark’s mission forced to make the difficult call to leave Mark’s apparently-lifeless body on the surface of Mars. Rick Martinez, another astronaut from Mark’s mission, doesn’t bring anything to entertain himself with for his duration on the planet except a small wooden cross.
The books seems to do a much better job of highlighting diversity than the movie will. In typical Hollywood fashion, the unique backgrounds of many of the characters is replaced with Generic White American, undoubtedly because many believe it makes the movie easier to swallow (and make oodles of cash). Later in the novel, NASA must consider whether or not to work with the Chinese National Space Administration, and the Chinese have to decide whether or not they’d even want to lend their help. They’re active agents in the book, and I wonder how that’s going to translate to the film.
But The Martian isn’t just going down a checklist of genders, religions, and skin tones; it really helps underscore how the potential rescue mission for Mark is a mission for all of humanity. In this, the novel transcends the boundaries of survivalist fiction and squarely lands in the realm of science fiction, where the really big questions are brought on by scenarios that don’t yet exist in the realm of science fact. I won’t tell you if Mark survives. I don’t think it’s really the point. The point is a question: how far would we go for another spunky, insignificant human person? Is a human’s life worth millions of dollars, hours of labor, and expending limited precious resources? I promised I wouldn’t spoil the ending for you. Half the fun of this book is sitting on the edge of your seat wondering how the characters will answer these questions. So grab a copy of the book (or audiobook) before the movie comes out in October and find out for yourself.
While you’re at it, be sure to also check out the film’s prequel videos on the ARES:live YouTube channel.