The Martian

the martian

      This note on The Martian looks at the novel by Andy Weir, not the film based on the novel and starring Matt Damon. (References are to the Del Rey Books edition of 2014.) The Martian tells of a man marooned in Mars, and as such it revisits many of the concerns and tropes of the castaway tale, and does this in a very thorough-going way. In particular, The Martian is engrossingly concerned both with scientific reason, as a hard SF novel, and equally with practical reason, with how the lone castaway thinks through material problems and improvises his way to solutions by using his intelligence and wit and whatever is to hand (this is what would have been salvaged in the traditional castaway tale, and what is left behind on Mars after his comrades make an emergency departure in this case). As will be evidenced shortly, this castaway is up-beat and full of witticisms, so there is no likelihood that he will become depressed or despair (at one low point he tells us he has had a ‘tantrum’ (158), but that is as far as he goes in the direction of despair or madness); as will be noted later, this novel concentrates on the material and organizational aspects of his plight, in particular on his material and technical problems and how he solves them by thinking and working: there is no evocation, and almost no description, of the landscape or the feel of Mars.

      This is perhaps the most thorough of all depictions of the castaway as practical problem solver. The contrasts which open out the text and make for tension come because – unlike in traditional castaway tales – the castaway is in contact with, and at times witnessed by, others, on Earth at NASA and in space in the Hermes, the craft our hero was to have journeyed home on. This opening out from the plight and work of the lone castaway introduces contrasts of helplessness and effective action, of aloneness and solidarity; but as we will see there is also a development in the narrative by which Mark’s values and behaviours tend to be adapted by others at NASA and on the Hermes, who would usually play by regulations and precautions that Mark is flouting and discarding, not only because he has to but because he enjoys doing so.

      The novel as work of hard SF adds a vital new element to the depiction of the castaway’s work and improvisation. Robinson Crusoe cultivates wheat and bakes bread, by trial and error, but he doesn’t know the botanical and chemical factors involved. This castaway knows (and expounds for us) the forces and the logic associated with energy, temperature, atmosphere, plant growth and so on, and he knows that all this will crush him if he doesn’t work with it or around it. As will be suggested in a moment, his improvisations and recourses often involve manipulating and deceiving technology in a counter-intuitive way, in that he repeatedly (and with enjoyment) jeopardises his safety in order to give himself a chance of longer term survival. He is engaged with things and their potentials and resistances, as were Robinson Crusoe, or Pincher Martin in Golding’s novel, but at the same time he is examining, combatting, trying to outwit, a kind of institution in the form of the multiple rules that cannot be ignored and forces and behaviours that have to be calculated and predicted.

      Most of the novel is narrated by Mark Watney, the main character who is marooned on Mars, and his style sets the tone for the novel as a whole, even though there are intervals narrated in the third person set at NASA back on Earth and in the Hermes, the spacecraft that left Watney behind on Mars, the crew caught up in an emergency and certain that he was dead. Mark is a joker, ebullient, open, energetic, and his narration reflects this. There are lots of jokes, some of them better than others; lots of swearing; and lots of selfconscious signalling to the reader (‘That was sarcasm, by the way’, 40) and occasional apologies for the technical detail and reasoning which fills the novel, and actually doesn’t need any apology (‘my boring math’, 67; ‘a nasty formula that I worked out’, 289). We can easily enough see this as typical of the contemporary knowing-disavowing style, both analysed and exemplified by David Foster Wallace, and, as with Wallace, the style in Weir goes along with formidable and varied technical knowhow and a willingness to immerse us in it, rather than sketching it in: a preparedness to take things very slowly. For all the facetiousness and the disclaimers the novel knows that we will be (or can be) fascinated by the technical detail which, after all, it is making absolutely central to the drama.

      This intimate, jokey, let it all out style has other very interesting aspects. It’s the means of as it were clearing the ground and allowing everything to be said, even if from time to time we are told something we have already worked out for ourselves, or we are offered an apology when none is needed. (Not that anything can be said. At one point on his first journey Mark says he feels nostalgic for the habitat: ‘How fucked up is that?’ (96) – It’s not really fucked up at all: the limits of his cheery no-nonsense vocabulary are visible for a moment. As often with hard SF, a certain jollity or bouncyness of tone can work to exclude threatening feelings and depths.)

      We are supposed to be reading Mark’s daily log, but there is no sense at all that it is for NASA or even for his fellow crew members. It’s not really for those who might come afterwards, like a journal in a castaway story; it is for us, the readers, and we are often addressed as if reading along at the present moment of the story (‘I know what you’re thinking’, 79; and again at 231: these remarks stage us as attentive, moment by moment as we read, to the material factors he is engaging with). The novel is democratic and unbuttoned. It’s anxious to assure us that Mark is an ordinary guy, that in his extraordinary struggles and improvisations he is working with ordinary things (more details on this in a moment) so that we (ordinary readers) can follow him in this, even if we need to be got up to speed from time to time with the laws of physics or of chemistry as they apply in his predicament, which we certainly do. We are his companions in celebrating his triumphs and lamenting his stuff-ups. In fact we are much more intimately his companions than those back on Earth, who communicate with him mostly in dry technical language and tend to distrust his competence (Mindy Park the junior staffer who monitors the satellite images of Mark is intimately connected with his daily actions, but is never in any communication with him; she communicates only with her superiors at NASA) – and much more than his fellow crew members and friends, who for much of the story don’t even know he has survived. So we have full disclosure to us, while elsewhere NASA authorities are keeping the fact of his survival from the crew of Hermes – and this makes for an on-going subplot (see 57, 90, 129, 144, 148 (Mark’s comment), 203), the subject of violent controversy at NASA and pungent criticism from Mark. A style of narration that establishes the option – the need, if we are convinced – of telling everything, and includes a subplot in which those who hold back and keep secrets look bad, is putting itself in a position to refresh and revise all its concerns with particular technology – work on material things. From the point of view of Castaway Tales, all this reflects the dependence of the castaway on practical reason. And the result, for this reader at least, is that everything is fresh: the various challenges, and the conditions and factors that make them challenges, strike us as if for the first time, and this follows from Mark’s engagement with telling us all about them. Near the end of his story, summing up his hard work and how it has became routine, he says he has been in succession a farmer, a trucker and a construction worker (341); if so, we have a new respect for ordinary labour, defamiliarised by taking place on Mars and in conditions of stress and danger. I suppose that different readers might well find this a bit obvious – working too hard to be blokey – but I am suggesting that in the context of the long and often grim history of the castaway tale it is refreshing.

      The separation between Mark as castaway and everyone else is of course built into the castaway tale, as is the fact that anyone else will figure in the story in a dramatic role as invader (in many castaway tales) or as rescuer. The variation that Weir works is to put them into communication (but not contact), abolishing the seclusion in which the traditional castaway works to make a new home and master the environment; he then extends this parallel narrative by contrasting Mark’s openness and the secrecy of (some of) the authorities. Then disclosure to his crew and a series of emergencies break down the barriers, so that by the climax of the story (his rescue) those who count are acting by Mark’s values (risk, improvisation, jokes (184, 256, 360 – many of the best jokes turn out to be made by those trying to help Mark, as they have to take more and more risks)). And in the same way, those trying to help Mark find themselves adapting – of necessity – his irreverent and paradoxical treatment of the laws of nature. (This last remark needs explanation, and will receive it shortly.) ‘We’re way off-script now’ says the commander of Hermes (280) when she is suggesting that if two crew members sleep together it will solve a complicated accomodation problem that has arisen – nature (sex) and the ordinary have to be restrained or are overlooked in ‘normal’ times in space but in this emergency are allowed back in.

      This process begins with Mark, and we can note a number of features here. One of them is an apparently perverse, counter-intuitive and, often, crazily risky treatment of the laws governing and the qualities of natural things (gases, for instance). It’s certainly not that these laws and qualities are ignored or scanted: they are more thoroughly present than in any castaway novel and in most SF novels, and, as we will see, at a simple level – no particle physics or quantum mechanics. In many ways this side of the novel uses a common action movie trope: the hero is a member of an impersonal, rulebound organization (here it is NASA; in action movies it is usually the police) but acts outside the rules in freespirited fashion, and wins through in the end. The usefulness of this fantasy for the rest of us who have to behave more responsibly or cautiously is obvious; The Martian improves on the standard version of the trope by showing that the rule breaking requires a lot of knowledge of the rules, and a lot of work.

      For example, he reasons that he has to take oxygen out of the air in his habitat, his shelter on Mars. The regulator for the atmosphere inside the Hab resists this:

I can’t blame it. Its whole purpose is to prevent the atmosphere from becoming lethal.

Nobody at NASA thought, “Hey, let’s allow a fatal lack of oxygen that will make everyone drop dead!”

So I had to use a more primitive plan. (42)

      This plan involves, in effect, deceiving the technology.1 Similarly Watney recovers and utilises (as a heat source) the RTG, ‘a big box of plutonium. But not the kind used in nuclear bombs. No, no. This plutonium is way more dangerous!’ (73) The RTG is buried atop a small hill, no doubt to make it easy to avoid, but this makes it easier to find.

These risky manipulations of technology and materials often involve the danger of explosions, and indeed on one occasion cause a spectacular and dangerous explosion that undoes all Watney’s ingenious and thoughtful work as a grower of potatoes and shoots him at speed out of the wrecked habitat. (He needs to survive long enough for the next Mars expedition to arrive, and his cultivation of potatoes figures as his ingenious solution to this problem.) The deliberate explosion or fire or risk of one of these can serve as image of Watney’s perverse but calculated treatment of risk. It’s significant that the practice spreads to the Hermes, and we find one of the crew, the droll, rational Vogel, asked to make a bomb to blow open one of the airlock doors:

“Sorry for the delay,” Vogel said. “I was required to make a bomb.”

“This has been kind of a weird day,” Beck said. (360)

      The bomb in question uses sugar: “In a pure-oxygen environment, 16.7 million joules will be released for every kilogram of sugar used, releasing the explosive force of eight sticks of dynamite.” (358) Pure, white and deadly, as the health ads used to say (in Australia). This too is typical: the mathematics can be complicated, the physical, chemical or botanical factors and behaviours ask for careful reminders to the reader, but the instruments and actions are often emphatically ordinary and straightforward. In special conditions, you can make a bomb from sugar – the conditions are special, the idea is clever, but sugar is familiar stuff. Watney makes a stone ramp to get various vital instruments onto the roof of his rover, ‘just like the ancient Egyptians did’ (103); he improvises a sextant (‘I’m in my space-suit on Mars and I’m navigating with sixteenth-century tools.’ 288). He jokes about his rough methods:

I used a sophisticated method to remove sections of plastic (hammer),

then carefully removed the solid foam insulation (hammer again). (76;

and see 109 on how he worked out that he was dealing with a lithium

thionyl chloride non-rechargeable battery, by reading the label).

      There’s a good deal of stress on how he mutilates and wrecks various carefully designed items to serve his new and urgent purposes – one of the rovers, which he converts into a heavily loaded cargo trailer, ripping off a section of roof and emptying many of its fittings; his habitat, where he consistently manipulates the technology to defeat its design purposes and safety features; and (this time on instruction from NASA, in accordance with the pattern whereby his methods spread from him to others) the Mars Ascent Vehicle that will carry him off Mars to rescue by Hermes, stripping out safety features and almost anything that can be got rid of, including the nose (to be covered with a sheet of canvas, ‘like a hastily loaded pickup truck’, 329), so as to minimise weight. Again, the crew of the Hermes have to damage their ship in various brutal ways (hence the bomb mentioned above) in order to find extra thrust to rendezvous with and rescue Mark.

      The novel is a thriller as well as a castaway tale; there are life-threatening perils, and a race against time in which unforeseen emergencies and obstacles have to be overcome. We have the pleasures of destruction, as with car chases and explosions in action movies, and as in action movies an outlet for the constraint or frustration we feel at our obedience to technology (‘drive safely’; ‘safety helmets must be worn by all visitors’), yet here the rules and the reasons for these rules in the natures of material things are everpresent, explained, and slowly reasoned out and worked on. Likewise the novel deals with our unease about waste and the inexorable tendency of our highly developed, prosperous way of life to drown us in stuff.

      There’s an emphasis on junk:

I lie among the food packs, water tanks, extra O2 tank,

piles of CO2 filters, box of pee, bags of shit,2 and personal items.

I have a bunch of crew jumpsuits to serve as bedding, along with

my blanket and pillow. Basically, I sleep on a pile of junk every

night. (97 – this on an early trip in one of the rovers)

      Much of his time is spent working out how to protect, keep functioning, repair, repurpose and transport the mass of technology he needs to stay alive (see for instance his checklist on 283). It’s a life of emergencies, challenges and dangers, but also of stuff, and mundane tasks – inventorying, checking, testing, recharging. When he is travelling, he has to stop every five days and wait for his solar batteries to recharge:

Now to my next task: sitting round with nothing to do for twelve

I better get started! (98)

      By the end of the novel, wastefulness has been vindicated: the rescue of a single individual has involved a vast diversion of resources, not only by NASA but by the Chinese who agree to allow one of their spacecraft to be utilised, not to mention risking the six lives of the crew of the Hermes to save one life (the subject of fierce dispute when it is proposed):

I think about the sheer number of people who pulled together just to

save my sorry ass, and I can barely comprehend it. (368)

      Indeed the story lays bare (and gives an optimistic spin to) the contradiction, or maybe it’s just a yawning gap, between the demographic – the mass of figures, dollars, things, people that makes the human globe – and the individual, looking after himself or herself. And in addition the whole world watches as the drama unfolds, helpless as the whole world usually is when some emergency or atrocity unfolds in the media, but, this time, sympathetic.

      There’s virtually no description and certainly no evocation of the landscape of Mars, Mars as spectacular, awe-inspiring, and rich in clues as to its geology and its past, as for instance in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. Watney is confined to the Hab or to a rover, and concentrated on material challenges and tasks, mostly involving the relations between the things humans have left on Mars (machines, canvas, spare suits) and the elementry qualities of the planet (temperature, behaviour of gases). Mars as something you can see and touch mainly figures as rocks that Watney laboriously piles to make a ramp, and then, after the ramp has served its purpose laboriously unpiles (104), or as ballast of a certain estimated weight, for use in testing the rover’s capacities as modified by Watney. Otherwise it figures in terms of its properties:

All around me was nothing but dust, rocks, and endless empty desert

in all directions. The planet’s famous red color is from iron oxide

coating everything. So it’s not just a desert. It’s a desert so old

it’s literally rusting. (75)

      That vivid remark about the rusting of the desert reminds us that the novel so often concentrates on the propensity of things to degrade and wear out: the race against time which shapes the thriller plot is very often a race against the tendency of things to wear out as well as run out; yet, as we have noticed, Watney, and later others, find themselves abetting this process by staging risky fires or explosions or by stripping life support and other systems out of various vehicles.

      Again, Watney remarks on how very quiet it is when he has shut everything down in the Hab:

But now there was nothing. I never realized how utterly silent Mars

is. It’s a desert world with practically no atmosphere to convey

sound. I could hear my own heartbeat. (284)

– a vivid realisation of what Mars is like, but drawn out of knowledge of its basic conditions and, as often, teaching or reminding us about these conditions.

1See also 281 (‘Then I tell the airlock to depressurize. It thinks it’s just pumping the air out of a small area, but it’s actually deflating the whole bedroom.’) and similarly at 336.

2‘My asshole is doing as much to keep me alive as my brain.’ (14): his excrement is needed for manure.