I’d heard a lot about the film starring Matt Damon so I had an idea of what this book was about and how potatoes were crucial but I do always like to read the book first so that your view of the author’s intent is not skewed by the director’s interpretation.
When I started this, I had my reservations: there is a lot of technical jargon and there was a lot of listing of procedure, and narratives like this just make my eyes droop. But, my adage with regard to any new book is to read the first 100 pages – if it’s been a hard slog getting that far, I ask myself the question “Do I care?” which basically means, “Can I leave this book and not wonder about what happened?” If the answer is a resounding “No! I don’t care!”, then I dump that book in the thrift store bag or the little library down the road and move on with no regrets.
The only time that there is an exception to this is when friends request that I read a book to find out what I made of it and I will determinedly plough through it so that we can pull it to pieces together at the end. James Herbert’s Others was a prime example of an experience that I would rather not have shared with my friend, Erin but the post-book analysis was great fun. Maybe one day I will share that book with you although, to be honest, I’m not sure I have suppressed my scorn enough to bring my thoughts back to its awfulness just yet.
The Martian, however, to return to the subject at hand was a blooming marvellous book and I am glad that I endured all the initial techno jargon because I thoroughly enjoyed it and it is certainly a book for our times.
Mark Watney has been stranded on Mars and has to work out how to survive. His crew mates departed without him so he has been left with minimal supplies and tools to work with and has no way of communicating with Earth due to transmitters being damaged in the same storm that caused him to be presumed lost.
No-one knows he is still alive.
Let’s just let that sink in a minute while you imagine what that must be like: you have been part of a team journeying to Mars, which is not a colony so there are no habitable areas there; no other people; no life, not even bacteria. You are on a big spherical red desert in the blackness of space on your own with no supplies, no communication, no air.
Mark is trained, yes, so he has some ideas of how to survive. He knows that he has to make water; he knows that he will have to leave the Hab which is his Mars home, a pressurised canvas tent that he can shelter in and travel across the planet; he knows that he has vitamins and some rations but that he will need to grow food; he has no idea if he will ever be rescued.
But how he psychologically doesn’t let his situation debilitate him I will never know. And that is what is remarkable about this story and why I would ask that you read it or watch the movie if you’re not a reader: Mark Watney is never defeated. Never.
Andy Weir is adept at providing complications for Mark all throughout his stay on Mars. I liked the book a lot better once the people on Earth were introduced but I think that this was an authorial choice: in hindsight, the turgid first pages are Mark’s record of the evaluation of his circumstances and his options. He has to rely on technical data and the specifics of what he has at his disposal and what he is capable of doing with the resources to hand to get a hold on his situation, psychologically and realistically.
He has to have some control.
These pages are relatively devoid of emotion and I think that this is done on purpose; it is necessary for Mark to suppress what must surely be his evident panic at being left and the emotions that that knowledge must release in order to remain calm.
And so, he throws himself into working out how to survive for four years which is the time that will elapse before the next Mars’ mission will arrive.
Again, just let that sink in. Four years on your own in a hostile environment with no human contact. And here I am, grumbling about the fact that I can’t go to a restaurant or a thrift store to bargain hunt. Four years!
I found this book quite an emotional read. Mark Watney is funny; there are moments throughout in his communications with others as well as in his journal entries that he shows a dry sense of humour. His comments about the entertainment that the other astronauts opted to bring with them on the trip like Commander Lewis’ love for disco, for example, provide light relief in a tale which has very few moments of joy.
And yet, this is a very positive book. Watney is positive; the efforts of the people back on Earth, striving to find a way to rescue him are positive; their eagerness to problem solve and unite, despite their political difference is positive; the unequivocally noble decision by Mark’s fellow spacemates to consider turning around to get him and all of the dangers to themselves that that proposes is positive.
This is a book which is less about an alien planet and more about earthly or human resilience; it’s about a determination to succeed despite the overwhelming odds; it’s about the value of friendship; it’s about chipping away at what seems to be an insurmountable obstacle and believing that it might all just work out as you wanted.
It’s about never giving up.
I think that in these weird times in which we find ourselves living, we could learn a lot from Mark Watney and Andy Weir’s portrayal of a man abandoned. I think that if he can survive on a desolate planet using only his wits, then I sure as heck will be able to endure this pandemic with the home comforts and diet variety available to me.
I think I may choose to have potatoes for dinner.