Mars needs women
In the wake of all the vampire books and zombie books and young adult fiction hits littering the popular landscape, Andy Weir's The Martian--about American astronaut Mark Watley, forced to survive alone on Mars--is like shot of adrenaline. At last a narrative that depends not on magic or the power of love but the relentless laws of science! And funny to boot!
Interesting how Weir developed his book: chapter by chapter is published online; readers gave feedback which Weir incorporated, improving the science. The result has had its technical and scientific accuracy polished to within an inch of its life, and I'll admit with my (very) limited expertise to being unable to find any factual flaws. If a Mars expedition were ever to happen it would probably look like this: run in stages, with the supplies and ascent vehicle already landed and making fuel years ahead. The mission itself will incorporate centripetally simulated gravity to reduce muscle atrophy, and speed to its destination under the gentle but efficient thrust of ion engines.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the narrative are the kinds of crises Weir throws at Watley starting with the first, the nature of which required precise elements: Watley had to be quickly separated from and lose contact with his colleagues, had to appear wounded enough to seem dead (yet somehow not so seriously wounded that he has no chance of surviving), had to be abandoned (he needed the extra provisions they represented) in the face of danger. In an explanatory end essay, Weir notes that he's tried to make each problem emerge from the flow of events, beyond the otherwise random first incident (a martian dust storm). The most successful problems--the most surprising and ironic--are often those that result from something Watley's developed or jury-rigged to solve an earlier problem, such as burning hydrazine (used as rocket fuel) to make water: not all the hydrogen is burned, Watley finds out, turning his inflated abode into a Hindenburg-style bomb.
Some of Watley's problems take ingenuity to solve; others require help from Earth advisers; still others need near-inhuman patience, the kind that could drive him over three thousand two hundred kilometers (two thousand miles) of rough terrain to reach a crucial landing site. Matters are even less forgiving out in space--thanks to orbital mechanics a single piece of canvas can throw an entire ship off course, and success is measured in kilometers per second (roughly 2,250 miles per hour).
Weir is a self-described nerd so his hard science is considerably more accomplished than his human psychology. The side characters, including Watley's fellow crewmembers and the NASA administration, are at most cartoon sketches (to be honest I'm probably being unfair to cartoons); Watley himself is the most fully (fairly) realized sketch (though there's little mention of his libido--stranded for over a year alone and he doesn't masturbate even once?): we spend so much time with him and his unflappable sarcasm ("I guess you could call it a 'failure', but I prefer the term 'learning experience'") we can't help but know him best.
The novel is an entertaining mix of physics, chemistry, botany and areography; it's everything a science fiction novel should be except, perhaps, evocative. Weir isn't one for lyricism; his description of Mar is at best functional, and I've already mentioned his skill (or relative lack of) at creating characters, not to mention his puritanical tendencies (the one pretty woman on the crew and the commanding officer immediately declares her off limits).
Perhaps Weir's worst fault is to create such a literal, straightforward, unmetaphorical story of survival--just the facts, ma'am, thank you very much! Instructive to compare it to another tale set on Mars, Frederik Pohl's Man Plus. The two narratives share common features, notable differences--where Weir has Watley improvising answers to problems McGyver-style, Pohl frontloads solutions beforehand, the most radical being the use of a cyborg (stronger and faster, needing less air food water--the human parts having less muscle mass and organs to maintain). Where Weir follows Watney's struggle to survive shortly after landing, Pohl traces Roger Torroway's transformation from pure human to something else, possibly something more.
Pohl does more than just problem-solve: he sketches a more troubled, more desperate, altogether more realistic Earth, its countries maneuvering to control diminishing resources yet unable to confront each other directly for fear of nuclear retaliation (You wonder at the relevance of a Mars mission in this environment? Pohl has an answer for that too). He populates his book with recognizable human beings, fallible and filled with selfish motives, who nevertheless know the importance of their mission (a marked contrast to Weir's scientists, most of whom are blandly heroic in their resolve to rescue Watley). He evokes allusions to Shelley's Frankenstein and speculates on what makes a human human, and at what point does Roger stop being human (crucial is the question of sensory perception--how we see Roger (Human? More? Less?); how Roger sees both himself and the world around him). Pohl's prose is far from purple, but when Roger finally reaches Mars he views it (through his sophisticated perception filters) as a kind of faerie land--a magic kingdom made for him and him alone.
Pohl also acknowledges the role of sex in his characters' lives--in his version of the future Catholic priests have finally been granted permission to marry, and at one point the writer sketches a convincing bout of zero-gravity intercourse (the only equivalent in Weir is a climactic encounter between the Mars ship and an ascent vehicle). And where most accounts of astronauts portray their marriages as infallible, Roger's greatest Achilles heel may be his wayward Penelope of a wife, Dorrie Torroway, who nevertheless wins a small measure of your sympathy when the President of the United States himself demands that she at least appear to be faithful to her husband.
Pohl laces his slim novel with humor, albeit of a darker more supple kind, with its own whispery pathos (Roger: "I don't want sex right now. I supposed you punched that into the computer? 'Cut down sex drive, increase euphoria'?"). By story's end the theme of perception has grown to include the question of perspective (who are we looking at, from what position, and why?) and finally power (who really pulls whose strings?) His martian is more closely monitored and controlled by NASA, the same time Pohl invokes inner unknowable demons (the human psyche for one) that are beyond anyone's ability to monitor or control.
Meantime--The Martian is a fine first effort, emphasis on 'first.' Not quite great science fiction, though--like Watley, Weir has a long long difficult trek before him before that adjective can apply; we wish him luck on his journey.
First published on Businessworld, 8.27.15