Last night I went to see a movie at the theatre and I saw the preview for the movie The Martian directed by Ridley Scott, which features Matt Damon as the lead character. My summer book club discussed the book The Martian just this week. The book is a gem and deserves movie fame…but I hope that people read the book first! The survival story centers on the MacGyver-like main character, Mark Watney, who is stranded on Mars after a life-threatening dust storm, without any means of communicating to his crew or Mission Control that he is still alive. His first challenge is how to survive on an inhospitable planet without enough supplies. Against impossible odds, Watney uses his engineering, math, and botany skills to combat each problem as it arises. His ability to stay sane and positive while in the solitary confinement of his Mars prison is truly inspirational.
The Random House paperback edition that I purchased included an essay from Andy Weir entitled: How Science Made Me A Writer. The essay was interesting on many fronts: it reveals the author’s self-deprecating sense of humor, and it indicated that the science in the novel was the result of considerable research and a life-long passion for science fiction, science, and orbital dynamics. It also exposed the intriguing backstory to this book. The Martian was originally available free on the internet, as the author chose to publish his work as a free serial novel on his website, posting one chapter at a time. The loyal following of readers he had amassed from previous posts, served as his first editors and sounding board. According to an interview between the author and Lee Hutchinson, the author’s initial attempts to shop the book around to publishers met with failure. After receiving reader requests for a way to read the book outside of a Web browser, the book went to e-reader format, and Weir offered it on Amazon for 99 cents! Gaining popularity on Amazon, the book got the attention of Crown Publishing, an imprint of Random House, which published the book and it became a bestseller.
The book begins with a logbook format and an expletive or two (which is to be expected given the circumstances). This format makes it feel like Mark is talking directly to the reader, and probably provides him with a sense of community and future as he struggles to survive alone on Mars. The reader learns little about Watney’s formative influences prior to this mission. He lacks a girlfriend, and mocks his own dating appeal, and we get only a brief reference to his parents. It is clear that Mark has a lot of technical skills, as one cannot help but be impressed by his resourcefulness. Here is one sample log entry: I finished making water some time ago. I’m no longer in danger of blowing myself up. The potatoes are growing nicely. Nothing has conspired to kill me in weeks. And seventies TV keeps me disturbingly more entertained than it should. Things are stable here on Mars. It’s time to start thinking long-term (p.65).
The introduction of the secondary characters in Mission Control, and particularly his fellow astronauts on the Ares 3 mission, adds some vitality to the science-heavy story. The phrase “science-heavy” will likely land me in trouble with all the tech enthusiasts that appreciate the explanations about orbital mechanics, air regulation, water reclamation, fuel systems, communication technology, and spacecraft engineering. There is actually something magical about a book that can appeal to such a wide audience: it has been praised by those who read science journals, thriller enthusiasts, science fiction fans, and an arts-educated librarian who appreciates a memorable survival story that is entertaining and inventive. Andy Weir’s website lists a book review from astronaut Chris Hadfield:
A book I just couldn’t put down! It has the very rare combination of a good, orginal story, interestingly real characters and fascinating technical accuracy…reads like “MacGyver” meet “Mysterious Island.”
What I loved about this book was the ingenuity, intelligence, and humorous stoicism of the main character, the intensity of the plot-line (will he survive or won’t he), and the inspirational vision that if humans join together, all problems can be solved.
BOOK CLUB EVALUATION: Thumbs up! This is one of the rare meetings that I have hosted where everyone in attendance liked the book. Discussion focused on the cost of the space program, the accuracy of the science in the novel, the author’s decision to provide no ‘back story’ for Mark Watney, the changes in narrative structure, and the commitment of those on Earth and fellow astronauts to save one individual. A reading guide and set of discussion questions are available for the novel.
If you like this book, try another incredible story of survival against great odds:
South: A Memoir Of The Endurance Voyage by Ernest Shackleton
His destination Antarctica, his expectations high, veteran explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton set out, on the eve of the First World War, in pursuit of his goal to lead the first expedition across the last unknown continent. Instead, his ship, the Endurance, became locked in sea ice, and for nine months Shackleton fought a losing battle with the elements before the drifting ship was crushed and his crew marooned. Shackleton’s gripping account of his incredible voyage follows him and his men across 600 miles of unstable ice floes to a barren rock called Elephant Island. It records how, with a crew of four, he crossed 850 miles of the worst seas in a twenty-two-foot-long open boat and how, after landing on South Georgia Island, they then had to traverse over twenty miles of mountainous terrain to reach the nearest outpost of civilization. Shackleton recounts, too, the efforts of his support party aboard the Aurora, who in temperatures of -50 [degree] and winds of 80 m.p.h. still managed to drop off supplies on the opposite side of the continent, little suspecting the fate of the Endurance and the ordeal of its crew. The harrowing experience recounted in Shackleton’s memoir is also strikingly illustrated with eighty-eight diagrams and original photographs taken in the course of this incredible voyage. – Publisher’s Summary