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Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian, is something of a success story for self-published authors everywhere. Released by the author as an e-book in 2011, the book was picked up for broader distribution last year by Crown Publishing group, and is now well on its way to the big screen. The book itself is a labor of love for Weir, a well-researched and highly-realistic work of speculative fiction. It endeavors to answer a fairly straightforward question, how could a person survive on Mars if they were stranded there? This question requires knowledge of space travel, orbital physics, botany, and NASA bureaucracy to answer effectively, and Weir quickly establishes his expertise on all of the above. The resulting book is impressive for the amount of preparation it must have required before pen could be put to paper, and manages an engaging story to boot.
The third mission in the Ares program (which has a five-mission contract to explore Mars) has had to abort after only six Sols, which is how days are measured on Mars. The shelter the astronauts have to live on the surface and the Ascent Vehicle they will rely on to leave are rated to handle 150 kph winds. On the sixth day, a storm with 175 kph winds barrels down on the crew. Everyone makes it back to the Ascent Vehicle, except for Mark Watney, who has been struck with a piece of debris and is believed dead. After the craft takes off, Watney comes to, fixes the hole in his suit, and tries to come up with a strategy to survive until the next mission shows up.
After that, things become complicated. There are debates back on earth about how to rescue Mark once they see him moving around on a satellite image. There are arguments about whether or not to tell the crew they left him on the surface now that they are headed back to Earth. Mark modifies his equipment to be used for a longer period of time than the design allows, tries to find a way to establish communication with Earth, and learns how to grow martian potatoes (it involves his poop, in case you could not wait to read the book). He also watches a lot of 1970’s television, left for him by his commander. This particular quirk of Commander Lewis is developed as a further love of 1970’s pop culture, but is never given any real depth. The book hits its stride when it starts to jump between the situation on Earth and the situation on Mars, playfully utilizing a sense of dramatic irony to heighten tension. A few red herrings are thrown in, but these are weak enough to keep the reader engaged without distracting from the story.
There were some things about the book I found a little annoying. Mark Watney, for example was a bit irritating. There has been this bizarre trend in the last half decade or so in science fiction to try to replicate the style of dialogue that Joss Whedon uses so skillfully in his work (or not so skillfully, as much as I love Firefly, some of the jokes need a little workshopping), and the result is a handful of one-liners that get shouted out into the empty air. Sometimes it is effective, often it is something to put up with. Part of the novel delves into the psychological profiles of each of the astronauts on the mission and explains how Mark’s sense of humor has been an asset in maintaining crew relations.
Mark Watney might be a fun guy to get a beer with, but if I had to spend nine months in a spaceship with him, one of us would go out the airlock. The other issue with Mark’s sense of humor is that it pulls us out of the world of the novel sometimes. There are moments of great danger or of recently passed trauma, and Mark will take a second to make some random quip, often without much payoff. Although Mark is in very real danger, Weir seems too enamored with his hero to make the reader believe at any point that Mark will not survive his ordeal. Mark’s sense of humor never breaks convincingly enough to show us the fear a man trapped on Mars might feel. It makes for a fascinating read, but not one I felt I could connect to.
Nearly everyone is the novel speaks with the same voice and sense of humor. Characters are given broad things which distinguish them, but I never got a sense for who these characters are. Mark is goofy. Commander Lewis loves the 1970’s. Martinez is Catholic. Vogel is German. Rich Purnell is an awkward guy who plots rocket courses. The most interesting interplay is between Ares Director Dr. Kapoor, NASA’s PR mayven Annie, and an assortment of other higher ups, who are constantly working to figure out how to effectively rescue Mark and how to engage the public. There were times when conversations about how to spin developments on Mars to the news were almost more interesting than the developments they had to spin.
The only other thing about the novel that became occasionally trying was all of the math the novel required me to keep track of. Some chapters read like the answer key to a word problem worksheet for the world’s most narrative-driven math teacher. I have to admit that I became frustrated or bored a few times, though full disclosure: I’m a literary theory kind of guy. I could follow along because most of what he was doing was high-stakes multiplication and division, but after a while it became tedious. It might, however scratch just the right itch if you would like to see your science fiction authors “show their work,” or if you need a particularly dramatic response for when your child asks when they’re going to have to use math in their lives after school.
I am making fun of it a little, but its possible that this is the kind of thing that would be right up someone else’s alley, and whether or not I was interested in reading all of it, I was still impressed by the work it must have taken. I was also pleased to discover that there were no major plot points that one would only catch if they checked Mark’s math. As far as I know, the most fantastical element of this book is getting enough funding for NASA to perform five manned missions to Mars.
The message of the book is a little pat, a little too tightly made for me. It’s a good message, people will work together to do something good for another human. The operations that attempt to rescue Mark involve multiple agencies in multiple governments politely working together and spending hundreds of billions of dollars all for one man, but it’s still just a little too clean. Weir shows a few scenes of tension, there is a negotiation to use a Chinese booster in return for a Chinese astronaut being included on a future Mars mission. There are also allusions to inter-project squabbles at NASA over resource use, but none of these are played out for us in any detail. Maybe it’s the kind of feel-good positivity people need. I recognize that not everything has to be supernovae wiping away galactic empires, or loved ones lost to explosive decompression in the vacuum of space, but this novel views the rusty Martian surface through rose-tinted glasses.
Ultimately, The Martian is a fun read, and toward the end it gets really interesting. Weir doesn’t commit any major sins in his writing, there is nothing especially absurd or unforgivable in the plot. The plot, in fact, is rather strong, and it will make an incredible movie. However, the characters, the dialogue, and some of the other elements of the story seem a little undercooked. I am happy to see someone who has been self-publishing as long as Weir has received recognition from a major publisher. He has written a pretty good book, and in interviews he seems like a nice guy. I hope to see more from him in the future. If nothing else, the popularity of this book could create interest in future Mars missions, and NASA will hopefully welcome any good PR it can get. The Martian is ultimately a fun read, and I recommend it, especially for anyone who loves the nitty-gritty math involved with space exploration.
Book to Film Comparison:
If you’re looking for a good time at the movies, you can’t go wrong with The Martian. Besides being a box-office success, the Ridley Scott directed flick is highly entertaining, packing plenty of action, jokes, and breathtaking visuals in its 144 minute run. Starring Matt Damon as Mark Watney, the movie was based on the book with the same name written by Andy Weir, and it does the source material justice. However, Drew Goddard, who adapted the screenplay, did make some notable changes that in no way ruin the experience for the watcher, but are still worth talking about.
First off, the opening in the book is very different from what we see at the beginning of the movie. “I’m pretty much f**cked,” Watney notes in the very first sentence of Weir’s book. It’s an effective opening line, which instantly puts the reader in Watney’s shoes and makes them eager to find out more about what happened to our hero. For the first 48 pages, we get to learn more about Watney’s personality, before the book even mentions what is going on back at NASA’s headquarters. Moreover, the events that led to Watney being stranded on Mars aren’t recalled until a flashback later in the book. Meanwhile, the movie opens with the ARES III crew's escape from Mars and the accident that forced the others to leave Mark behind.
When the airlock explodes in the movie it’s probably the first time the watcher really feels like our hero might actually die on Mars. The suspense is high, but things are even more dramatic in the book. We read about Watney spending hours trying to seal his suit and the airlock after the explosion. Then, he is forced to flip the airlock towards the HAB, which drains him of energy and really takes a toll on his back. In the movie, Watney simply puts some duct tape on his helmet before exiting the airlock and venturing outside.
Another big change concerns Watney’s journey from the HAB to the Ares IV MAV. In the movie, his ride is pretty smooth and he reaches his destination without major drama. Meanwhile, an entire section of the book covers his travels, which don’t come without hiccups. He can’t communicate with NASA during the trip, so he can’t be warned about a massive dust storm that may prevent his solar cells from charging. He eventually figures it out and finds a way around that problem and the reader is wary of Watney’s clever scientific solution. Next, the space pirate runs into trouble when entering the Schiaparelli crater as well. His entire vehicle assemble flips over, so he spends days trying to right the wrong. All in all, his journey is in no way as safe as portrayed in the movie.
That being said, probably the biggest difference between the novel and the film is the ending. After Watney basically turns the Ares 4 Mars Ascent Vehicle into a “convertible,” the Hermes crew must grab him out of the moving spacecraft. In the book, things go pretty much according to plan. The crew members still cause an explosion to breach the Hermes, but things run smoothly after that. A crew member jets out on a tether and manages to grab Watney in time, safely returning him to Hermes. In the movie, however, Commander Lewis is the one who goes after Watney, considering the mission to be too dangerous for the rest of the crew. Then, Watney pokes a hole in the glove of the suit, because the Commander can’t reach him. He gets to “fly around like Iron Man” before embracing Lewis, which, you have to admit, makes for a more compelling movie scene. His suggestion to poke a hole in his glove is made in the book, but only as a joke.
Last but not least, the movie adds an entire epilogue where it shows where the characters eventually wind up. We see Watney teaching, Martinez going back into space, Lewis and Vogel spending time with their loved ones, Beck and Johannsen having a baby. The book simply ends with Watney back on Hermes complaining about his personal hygiene, but still admitting that he’s living the best day of his life.
There are other changes in the movie, but they are minor. Johannsen and Beck’s relationship, for instance, is only hinted in the movie, while in the book everyone on Hermes is aware of their indiscretions. Watney also spends a huge chunk on time in the novel modifying the Mars Rovers for his journey and accidentally shorts out Pathfinder, which doesn’t happen on screen.
However, the film really manages to capture the spirit of the book. It makes space travel look very dangerous, but still incredibly awesome. It highlights the importance of using science to your advantage and making the most of your resources in order to survive. More importantly, it creates a highly sympathetic character who isn’t defeated by his dire circumstances. Instead of panicking or getting depressed, Mark Watney uses humor to make light of his situation and get some perspective, which really pays off in the end. And that’s something we can all learn from.