One day last week, with temperatures below zero outside and feeling vertigo from a sinus/ear infection whenever I moved, I simply stopped moving and lay on the bed, reading the new Anne Tyler novel, which I’d started the night before. I finished reading it around noon and lurched out to the living room to sit in a chair, waiting for a prescription to be delivered, and read all of Andy Weir’s The Martian. I couldn’t stop. Ron had a similar experience with The Martian, picking it up “to look at it” and finishing it by staying up too late on a night our elderly cat was sick and restless.
The Martian is both a castaway story and technical science fiction, weaving one with the other to create suspense. The hero, Mark Watney, an astronaut with specialties in botany and engineering, suffers an injury during an evacuation of a mission on Mars. All indications lead the rest of his team to conclude he is dead, and they leave the planet. At the beginning of the book, Mark finds himself alone on Mars, with no way to tell anybody that he is still alive. We see him find ways to stay alive, and begin to plan for the future. The first chapter we get from the point of view of anyone on Earth is two months later, on the day of Mark’s memorial service, when an observant NASA employee notices some changes at the mission site, changes that can only be the result of Mark’s survival. NASA immediately begins planning a rescue mission.
In addition to the suspense created by going back and forth between “the Martian” (Mark is the only living being on Mars) and the NASA rescue operation, reader interest is sustained by humor, especially about the resources Mark has for entertainment during his ordeal– 70’s TV shows and disco music. At the moment a NASA higher-up is trying to imagine what it’s like to be Mark:
“He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?”
we find out what Mark is thinking:
“How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.”
Mark is finally able to establish communication after trekking out into the Martian wilderness to pick up equipment from a previous mission, Pathfinder. He finds Sojourner and brings back parts of the lander. His approach is, as always, deliberate and reasoned—he thinks about cause and effect and tries a fix for the most likely cause:
“On most landers, the weak point is the battery. It’s the most delicate component, and when it dies, there’s no way to recover.
Landers can’t just shut down and wait when they have low batteries. Their electronics won’t work unless they’re at a minimum temperature. So they have heaters to keep the electronics warm. It’s a problem that rarely comes up on Earth, but hey. Mars.
Over time, the solar panels got covered with dust. Then winter brings colder temperatures and less daylight. This all combines into a big “fuck you” from Mars to your lander. Eventually it’s using more power to keep warm than it’s getting from the meager daylight that makes it through the dust.
Once the battery runs down, the electronics get too cold to operate, and the whole system dies. The solar panels will recharge the battery somewhat, but there’s nothing to tell the system to reboot. Anything that could make that decision would be electronics, which would not be working. Eventually, the now-unused battery will lose its ability to retain charge.
That’s the usual cause of death. And I sure hope it’s what killed Pathfinder.”
When he is near to getting the equipment working again, Mark thinks that his biggest problem will be to find someone listening:
“If the lander comes back to life (and that’s a big if) it’ll try to establish contact with Earth. Problem is, nobody’s listening. It’s not like the Pathfinder team is hanging around JPL just in case their long-dead probe is repaired by a wayward astronaut.”
What he doesn’t know is that NASA has been watching what he is doing, and as soon as he gets the equipment working, he makes a crowded room full of people burst into cheers:
“The ad-hoc Pathfinder control center was an accomplishment in itself. Over the last twenty days, a team of JPL engineers had worked around the clock to piece together antiquated computers, repair broken components, network everything, and install hastily-made software that allowed the old systems to interact with the modern Deep Space Network.”
Various resupply and rescue missions are proposed and mounted, and readers get a new appreciation for why everything in the space program is set up with redundant systems that need to be tested, inspected, and re-tested. Also, that, as Mark says, “duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.”
When the final rescue mission is decided on, Mark has to set out on a epic journey across Mars. There’s a lot of technical stuff in this section, but it’s always leavened by humor. Mark says he has finally
“exhausted Lewis’s supply of shitty seventies TV. And I’ve read all of Johanssen’s mystery books.
I’ve already rifled through other crewmates’ stuff to find entertainment. But all of Vogel’s stuff is in German. Beck brought nothing but medical journals, and Martinez didn’t bring anything.
I got really bored, so I decided to pick a theme song!
Something appropriate. And naturally, it should be something from Lewis’ godawful seventies collection. It wouldn’t be right any other way.
There are plenty of great candidates: “Life on Mars?” by David Bowie, “Rocket Man” by Elton John, “Alone Again (Naturally)” by Gilbert O’Sullivan.
But I settled on “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees.”
Always conscious of the possibility of an eventual audience for his log, Mark sums up one almost-impossible task he’s performed by saying “after two hours of brutal labor, during which I whined a lot, I got it all in.” He also comments that “physical law is a pushy little shit.”
At one point he has to test some brackets he’s made and says that he does it “by hitting them with rocks. This kind of sophistication is what we interplanetary scientists are known for.”
A high point in the humor is when Mark reasons through what will happen if he succeeds in making his epic journey:
“There’s an international treaty saying no country can lay claim to anything that’s not on Earth. And by another treaty, if you’re not in any country’s territory, maritime law applies.
So Mars is ‘International Waters.’
NASA is an American nonmilitary organization, and it owns the Hab. So while I’m in the Hab, American law applies. As soon as I step outside, I’m in international waters. Then when I get in the rover, I’m back to American law.
Here’s the cool part: I will eventually go to Schiaparelli and commandeer the Ares 4 lander. Nobody explicitly gave me permission to do this, and they can’t until I’m aboard Ares 4 and operating the comm system. After I board Ares 4, before talking to NASA, I will take control of a craft in international waters with permission.
That makes me a pirate!
A space pirate!”
The rest of Mark’s mission is gripping, and intelligible not only because of the humor and the back-and-forth between what Mark knows and what people on Earth and in the rescue ship know, but also for the comparisons he makes. At one point he asks “Ever set up a camping tent? From the inside? While wearing a suit of armor?” At another he asks “Have you ever taken the wrong freeway entrance? You just need to drive to the next exit to turn around, but you hate every inch of travel because you’re going away from your goal.”
The Martian is a page-turner. I can’t think of the last time I was so engrossed in a book. Thanks to Laurie from The Bay State Reader’s Advisory for recommending it to me! What’s the last page-turner you enjoyed?