Life, as the esteemed Dr. Ian Malcolm (of Jurassic Park fame) told us, can only exist on the edge of chaos. Our existence as human beings is only possible due to the delicate balancing act between change and stability, between adaptation and death.
That’s equally true of life on Mars, where survival lies in the delicate balance of the ratio between oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide in one’s spacesuit. It’s the balance between the weight of a spaceship and the weight of the fuel it requires to fire that mass into orbit. It’s the balancing act between something risky but rewarding and something just plain stupid.
It’s the balance, in other words, between science and imagination – between knowing (and utilizing) scientific laws and using that human spark of creativity to turn them to one’s advantage.
That balance of science and imagination is also at the heart of Andy Weir’s The Martian. A runaway bestseller, the book boasts a simple but intriguing premise: with a mission gone wrong, NASA astronaut Mark Watney is accidentally stranded on Mars and needs to find a way to survive and get back to Earth. All he has is his wits, his humor, and some stuff the hastily-departed mission left behind.
And that’s where the balancing act comes in. The Martian is technically a “hard science fiction” book – a subgenre of science fiction so firmly rooted in science that the story wouldn’t work without it. And certainly, Weir’s first work is science-heavy; he even mentioned in an interview that the book was an exercise in whether he could make a fictional narrative out of the scientific premise of the novel. The answer, obviously, is “yes,” and The Martian is an intriguing exercise in the way that science itself can create plot.
The counterbalance to this, however, is the book’s deeply human element. Despite containing enough physical and chemical laws to fill an elementary science curriculum for about a year, The Martian is nonetheless a book about the human spirit, individual and communal, more than it’s about anything else. In a book so deeply based in physical and chemical laws, engineering, and planetary science, the only thing that prevents it from becoming an actual textbook is precisely that human element, which is able to find humor and hope on a deadly planet where each physical law could kill you or help you survive, depending how you bend it to your will.
It’s precisely this balance between human inventiveness and scientific rigor that makes this book work. Tip too much in one direction, and you get a science textbook. Stray too much in the other, and you get a book that doesn’t have enough science to justify its story. It’s a testament to Weir’s skill as a writer, then, that he’s able to create that fine balance, giving science geeks plenty to think about as they consider living on another planet, while the less scientifically-inclined readers enjoy the book for the way the character deals with his situation. Written in the first person as the personal log of Mark Watney, an engineer, botanist, and all-out geeky dork, the novel possesses a distinct, wry, sarcastic voice and an attitude towards hardship that testifies to why humanity’s survived, managed to go to space, and sent a space probe all the way to Pluto.
In short, the book is a testament to human inventiveness in every way. It’s a book about a scientist who gets to be a superhero and survive on an alien planet due to the power of his brain. It’s a celebration of, to borrow an eloquent phrase from the upcoming film adaptation of the novel, the human capacity for “science-ing the shit out of this,” and it’s incredibly awesome and inspiring.
The book is not without its flaws, however, and I’d be remiss not to note them. As Weir’s first book, it’s evident that he’s still working out some of the mechanics of telling a tale, resulting in blunt predictability in places. For example, if a character who lives alone on a planet that could kill you says “Yes! Tomorrow I’ll have accomplished this and this!” you just know disaster is coming. If he dedicates several paragraphs describing exactly how the canvas out of which astronauts make dwellings on Mars is made, you just know that in the next chapter it’s going to rip, tear, explode, or break.
The only real complaint I have, though, is that for a book that manages so much realism in its science, it’s a bit lacking in the realism department when it comes to the social, political, and economic stuff that’s happening on Earth. The book is set up as a dual narrative, that side-by-side tells of Watney’s adventures on Mars and NASA’s attempts to rescue him back on Earth (with a lot more emphasis on the former, of course).
Ironically, the stuff about one human being surviving on Mars is a lot more realistic than the stuff happening on Earth. Here, the depiction leaves much to be desired: NASA and China are apparently the only ones with rockets and the technology to send anything to space. Never mind that the Soviet Union was the first to send people into space, the fact that this book is set in the near future (where we’ve managed to get to Mars), meaning that a few other countries could plausibly have space-faring technology , or the existence of the dozens of private space agencies that can actually put stuff in space. As much as I love NASA (and with the recent Pluto flyby, it’s hard not to love NASA), this overt glorification of one space agency above all others rubs the wrong way.
Plus, the book gives the impression that pretty much everyone on planet Earth bands together to spend billions of dollars to help rescue one human from Mars, and as much as I like to believe in humanity, I’d perhaps have enjoyed a slightly grittier portrayal of the battle for the time, money, and resources needed to save one human from millions of miles away.
Nonetheless, after this book, I am definitely going to be spending all of my time science-ing the shit out of everyday life.
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