Space is a big deal in pop culture these days, so it’s no surprise that Andy Weir’s hit novel The Martian got good word-of-mouth and a quick movie treatment. It’s the story of an astronaut who accidentally gets left behind on the red planet when his mission goes bust, and the DIY science needed to keep him alive. If you’ve read it as well, chime in on the discussion!
Levi: After hearing a couple recommendations from friends, I think another reason I put my name on the hold list for this book at the library was knowing I’d like to have an opinion on the book before the movie came out. I got partway into it, and then you needed a new book to read too and I just kind of handed it to you one night. What was it like jumping right in? Did you expect any particular sort of story?
Laura: Just like when I saw the movie 127 Hours, I went into this book completely unaware of the plot. I even refused to read the back cover. Good choice! It’s one of those stories that instantly draws the reader in from the first chapter. The fact that the plot seems like an incredibly realistic scenario that could happen in this century made it easy to connect with Mark, and Weir certainly spared no details when it came to the science behind Mark’s plans for survival. Were you surprised when the narrative suddenly switched to the NASA employees back on Earth?
Levi: I think that was a welcome and crucial switch. The beginning of the book is fast and new and enjoyable. Then a little way in my eyes would glaze over because regardless of the situation, I knew that Mark Watney would figure out a way to scientifically overcome whatever the obstacle was. I mean, he’s not going to die on page 50, right? So I wondered what else there could be. The main narration is through typed journal logs, and he obviously can’t have another character beside him (unless he goes insane, but this is not a weird paranoia tale like the movie Moon). So when it jumped back to Earth, that was a breath of fresh air and renewed my interest, especially the hardworking and hopeful Venkat Kapoor.
Laura: The characters back on Earth were pretty fun too. Speaking of back on Earth—it was an interesting choice to not mention much about Mark’s personal life back home. There were a couple of brief mentions of his mom and dad, but no love interests or friends that he talks about. I suppose it’s possible that he had devoted his entire life to becoming an astronaut. Still, his ability to remain calm and focused on the tasks at hand for several months without any contact with another human being is the most unrealistic part of this book. I would have liked to see him go slightly insane and put a wig on his computer or make a potato head family to talk to. What do you think kept him levelheaded in all that time alone on Mars?
Levi: Where was his Wilson?! I thought that over and over. It became particularly troublesome when he finally makes contact with NASA, and he says something along the lines of up until that point he was the loneliest man on the planet. Now there’s a joke in there, because Mark’s a funny guy and of course he’s the only one on the planet, but still, we got precious little of his emotional struggles. The only way I could rationalize it was that he was using his log/journal to talk his way through the myriad survival problems he faced, which is a good use of his time. But then again, he is knowingly funny and rebellious in both his personal entries and his conversations with NASA, so why stop there? Why not lay your heart out? Journal space seems to be the one thing he had in abundance, so I was confused about the lack of true loneliness from this guy. Also: everything he described made me claustrophobic.
Laura: Good point. It’s not as though his journal entries were solely scientific or personal, more like a blend that he knew or hoped would someday be found and read by his crew mates. I can see how his journal was his only true companion, but I have a hard time believing that would be enough. Throughout the entire book I found myself flipping back and forth between thinking he’ll survive and thinking that he would take a turn for the worse and the journal entries would get more emotional. His enduring spirit reminded me of Christopher McCandless’s solo journey through the Alaskan wilderness. I think that’s why I had decided Mark would find a terrible fate before a rescue operation could take place.
Levi: That’s a cool comparison. I agree that some sort of emotional plunge would have made the middle of the book better, and I kept holding out for it. Instead it stayed in pure science mode. This is the hardest of “hard” sci-fi you can get, and it’s an impressive feat to be sure. I suppose if you were to ask, what’s the most realistic way to tell about someone who is stranded on Mars, then this might be it. But sometimes it feels more like an elaborate thought experiment with the goal of just explaining the creative scientific solutions. If you were to ask, what’s the best story someone could possibly tell about a person alone on a planet, then is this it? I hesitate to say yes. Anyway, I did enjoy how the ending made me fret for his life in an urgent way, and you have to get to the very last pages to see what happens.
Laura: I have a feeling Ridley Scott will do a better job of appealing to our emotional sides than Andy Weir, who is a self-proclaimed nerd. Speaking of the movie—have you seen the trailer yet? I bet you’re itching to press play now that we’ve gotten our thoughts down on
paper the blog!
Levi: I’ve managed to delay my viewing, but give me a few minutes to watch…
Laura: First thought: the casting is pretty good. Jeff Daniels at NASA and Jessica Chastain as Commander Lewis? Couldn’t be a better fit. Damon’s cool too. Didn’t we just see him alone on a planet in Interstellar?
Levi: Looks like they gave him a wife and kid! I admit I got the shivers. Wow, that cast is stacked. Okay, so my Damon thoughts are generally, do we really need a good-looking A-lister in the central role? Can’t we take a risk on a nerdy, weird-looking dude who has to earn the audience’s empathy? Matt Damon comes with built-in charm and loveableness. It’s too easy. More specifically: you’re right about the Interstellar thing. He was the big “secret” cast member who was revealed to be an astronaut… alone… struggling to find a way off a planet. Why does Damon get to have all the space fun? Eh, whatever. I’m more curious about the tone of the movie. The instantly catchy “science the shit out of this” line is delivered against a huge booming score instead of a fun jaunty ditty that it deserves. The movie might just sap the humor out of everything.
ANYWAY. I’ll still go see the film, and it was a fun, unique book to read. Final question: would you ever try space travel (potential violent death aside)?
Laura: Hells to the no. Kudos to those who are willing to shoot off to space in a rocket going a bajillion miles per hour then spend weeks or months floating around eating freeze-dried “food” for nutrition and getting all atrophied up in their muscles. Or whatever they do. There would be some things that would be pretty cool to try in zero gravity, and the view can’t be beat, but I would just miss you and I-man too much. Thanks, but no thanks!
Levi: There you have it, folks. Sometimes exploration is best left to the experts…like novelists and filmmakers. You can go to Mars and still sleep in your own bed.