by Thea James)
LOG ENTRY: SOL 381
I’ve been thinking about laws on Mars.
Yeah, I know, it’s a stupid thing to think about, but I have a lot of free time.
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.” [...] After I board Ares 4, before talking to NASA, I will take control of a craft in international waters without permission.
That makes me a pirate!
A space pirate!
Mark Watney’s been having a rough day. A mechanical engineer with an advanced botany degree, Watney was one of a crew of six sent to Mars for a 31 Sol (Martian day) mission: observe, test soil, fix any problems with the gear, and so on. On Sol 6, things go terribly wrong. Faced with a violent and unabating dust storm, NASA instructs the crew to abort mission, and on the way to the Mars Ascent Vehicle (the MAV), Mark is impaled with the mission’s radio antenna and swept away by the powerful winds. Thinking him dead, Watney’s crewmates leave the red planet and rendezvous with their waiting shuttle for the very long trip back to Earth.
Problem is, Mark Watney is very much alive. Saved by congealing blood and a resin suit repair kit, Watney makes his way back to the HAB (the crew’s living habitat on Mars). Unfortunately, the HAB was only intended for a short human visit, outfitted with just enough food, water and support systems to keep alive a crew of 6 for 31 days (times 2, thanks to NASA’s redundancy planning). That’s a little over a year of food for a single inhabitant.
And here’s the real kicker: It takes much longer than a year for NASA to put together a mission to Mars. Even if transit time weren’t an issue, no one knows that Mark is alive. Somehow, Mark has got to make his food and supplies stretch for an impossible 4 years (the date of the next Ares supply drop mission to Mars). Easier said than done, right?
Originally self-published in 2012, then subsequently traditionally published in 2014 by Crown, The Martian is Andy Weir’s take on a disaster survival, Castaway/Robinson Crusoe type thriller in outer space. No, wait. That’s not quite right. The Martian is more along the lines of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13—everything that can go wrong, goes wrong. The lack of food, the side-effects of Watney’s frenetic attempts at survival, the failed EVAs, the plentiful mishaps and explosions—well, let’s just say, Houston, we have multiple problems. (Believe me, I should know. When I was 12 years old, Apollo 13 was my favorite movie. I watched it thrice in the movie theater, and many, many times on VHS.)
But more than disaster story, The Martian is a thriller starring an ingenious protagonist. There’s a great deal of hard science in the book, and Mark Watney’s superpower is his ingenuity—he’s a ridiculously smart and creative guy. Actually, the Castaway/Robinson Crusoe/Apollo 13 comparison isn’t quite right either. Really, Mark Watney is MacGyver. On Mars. With an engineering background and a botany degree. Not enough food to last 4 years? NO PROBLEM! Watney’s got a madcap plan (that involves produce, human manure, and an incredibly dangerous formula to make water). The most fascinating thing, to me, is how The Martian walks the fine line between boring exposition and awesome mad science—there’s a little bit of handwaving (“I won’t bore you with the math” is a phrase used multiple times), but enough actual hard science and pertinent facts to make for a mostly convincing read.*
The biggest triumph of the book, however, lies with The Martian’s masterful narrative. Initially relayed through Watney’s daily logs, but interspersed with third person narration back on Earth from the various hardworking NASA folks trying to bring Mark home alive, The Martian kind of rocks the narrative game. Watney, as a protagonist, is incredibly sharp but also hilarious—he knows the gravity of his situation, but he also possesses a tireless sense of humor, and a refreshing tendency to trust his own instincts and knowledge. (This is a sharp contrast to NASA’s myriad checks and tendency away from anything that hasn’t been vetted by various levels of the bureaucratic machine.)
At times hilarious and by turns frightening, The Martian is at its heart uplifting. The book succeeds because it isn’t all doom and gloom—Watney deals with a very dramatic, frightening scenario without getting collapsing under the weight of its seriousness or melodrama. Most awesomely, The Martian showcases the BEST in human nature: NASA gets over its internal squabbling, international cooperation is achieved and the world is breathless to help this one stranded man get home safely. And, yeah, that’s a little idealistic and sentimental, but I freaking loved every second of it. Just as much as I loved Apollo 13. Maybe even more than I loved Apollo 13.
What I’m trying to say is this: The Martian is a book I absolutely, emphatically recommend for the aspiring science and survival geek in us all.
In Book Smugglerish, a delicious 8 freeze-dried martian potatoes out of 10.
*My big complaints were twofold: 1. Martian dust isn’t the same as Earth dirt—the filtration nightmares that Martian dust present are non-issues in this book; 2. There’s basically no discussion of the effects or troubles presented by prolonged exposure to radiation on the surface of the red planet.
Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can also find them on Twitter.