C. S. Forester’s Hornblower novels come with their adventurous jargon. So do the nautical narratives of the future, where Space is the treacherous ocean to sail. The terminology changes, though: EVAs, MAVs, modules, checksums. Andy Weir’s “The Martian” is a castaway tale from that near future of extraterrestrial exploration. Astronaut Mark Watney has been accidentally left behind on the Red Planet – and he miraculously proceeds to survive through sheer scientific ingenuity.
It is very tempting to reduce that plot to “Castaway” + “Gravity” = “Robinson Crusoe in Mars,” (which already exists.)
“The Martian” is hardly original, a recognizable descendant of science-infused adventures that go back to, if not Daniel Defoe, at least Jules Verne. (“From the Earth to the Moon” + “Mysterious Island” would be the more classical reduction formula.) But what has made “The Martian” popular (and more than a little over-hyped) is that, within the breeziest of narratives, it packs the hardest of SF. The intellectual pleasure here lies with Mark’s use of chemistry, physics, biology, geology and botany. Mark might protest that his stupidity leads him to the brink of death all the time, but that’s a pretty harsh standard of human intelligence: it’s safe to say that you or I would have died about 10 minutes into our Martian adventure. Andy Weir has taken his science seriously – and not science as some laboratory abstraction, but science as the trial-and-error process through which survival on the surface of Mars can go from outlandish fancy to eventual inevitability.
Low gravity on Mars means a lot of levity, so Weir punctuates it all with jokes, written in the vernacular of irony I’ll admit to employing all the time: “Oh, yay. I’m stuck on Mars and will probably die here. That doesn’t suck ass at all!” Half the charm is in those jokes – without them, this would be Arthur C. Clarke – but they’re all more than a little obvious (“Disco sucks! What is UP with ‘Three’s Company’?”) I didn’t mind. Where ‘The Martian” drifts off is with a pack of secondary characters that seem as mechanic in their forced “diversity” as if they were automatons yanked from the “It’s a Small World” ride. At least Weir seems aware of how flat they are. Here’s how a German astronaut reacts to being offered a sausage:
“Ja, please,” Vogel responded.
“You know you’re a stereotype, right?”
“I am comfortable with that.”
Maybe a little less comfort with stereotypes would have led to better characterizations.
RATING: COOL! OUTTA SIGHT