A few months ago, Howard Tayler (creator of Schlock Mercenary) recommended a book on the “Writing Excuses” podcast. The book was THE MARTIAN, by Andy Weir. He sang its praises and described the basic premise–I was instantly intrigued, so I downloaded a copy of the audio and listened to it over the course of a week.
It’s probably the best book I’ll read in 2014.
The setup? In the near future, a NASA mission on the surface of Mars is hit by a violent storm. The crew have to evacuate right away. As they run to their escape module, one of them gets hit by debris and is assumed dead. The others have to leave. The castaway, Mark Watney, survives his injuries and the storm.
Now, he has to survive Mars.
The best part about it? It’s a hard sci-fi. Weir did his homework, and it shows. Even the parts that come off as science lectures in the narrative are intriguing. The main character, Watneym, has an analytical mind and a sense of humor that are both vital to his continued existence, especially if he plans to A) communicate with Earth and B) live long enough for them to figure out how to save him. (And believe me, he really sells the “will they, won’t they?” aspect all throughout the book. It doesn’t end the way you think it does.)
I’ll say nothing else, because the book is worth the read, and the discovery aspect of it is highly rewarding. (Although be warned, there’s a “realistic” amount of Adult Language in it, if that bothers you.) My main point in discussing this book is based on something that kept occurring to me as I read it:
Imagine something like this happening today, in our world–a world full of conspiracy theorists, false-flag fearmongers and tinfoil hat-wearing know-it-alls with multiple Twitter accounts and too much time on their hands.
Imagine something like this happening in a world where the government cuts funding to space exploration and grounds the shuttle program so that they can spend more money on [pick anything, really–the TSA, the IRS, the NSA, whatever].
Imagine something like this happening in a world where the warring parties in our government absolutely refuse to work together to accomplish something that might help the other–and many of them do so at the behest of their rabid voter base.
Now imagine you turn on the news one evening and hear these words: “The Ares 3 mission control has just received confirmation that Mark Watney is alive on the surface of Mars. NASA and the White House have pledged all available resources to his safe return, no matter how long it takes, and no matter the cost.”
In the fictitious world of THE MARTIAN, this pulls everyone together. At the risk of avoiding specifics and spoilers, I’ll just have to prod you to use your imagination. The effort to save one man on a planet 140 million miles away will cost billions of dollars in emergency legislation. There would be news coverage of it ’round the clock for over a year. Nobody would rest easy until they knew there was a way to get their boy back.
Maybe back in the 1960s, in the early days of the space race and the prospect of putting a man on the moon, this would have ignited a scientific renaissance among the youth of America. I fear that in our day, it would just unleash a hellish typhoon of snark on Reddit–a “Snarknado”, if you will–with everyone shouting solutions instead of asking questions about the problem. Nobody would seek to understand; they would demand to be understood, at any cost.
The conspiracy theorists would have their day as well; they’d claim that this was the plan all along, to force Congress’ hand to give more money to NASA, which in turn would give it to private corporations. The stranded astronaut would just become a straw man for a bunch of bull crap arguments on the Internet.
I fear that a plurality of our society would be more focused on having their say–and having it be “right”–than they would be focused on Watney’s actual plight, how he was surviving, what he was learning, and what were his chances of rescue.
In the 1960s, Neil Armstrong’s Moonwalk made a million American youths want to study math and science.
Today, Mark Watney’s Martian Marooning would likely start a flamewar on the Internet, get sliced-and-diced by politicians during an election year, and the actual scientific results of his sojourn would go largely unread by the masses.
Don’t get me wrong–the book isn’t like that. Weir doesn’t waste your precious time and attention with garbage. This is a can-do extravaganza of awesome on all fronts. I just lamented knowing that present-day America has, at large, abandoned the values that would have turned a moment like this into a saga of heroism and national pride.
Perhaps I’m being overly cynical. I hope so, I really do.
But whether I am or not, you owe it to yourself to read this book. It’s funny, it’s scary, it’s tense, it’s educational and informative, and it’s too real to ignore. Weir deserves all of the praise and success he’s garnered for it since it came out a few years ago (AND HE SELF-PUBLISHED THE ORIGINAL VERSION! AYFKM?!)
Okay, rant over. Go read THE MARTIAN. You’re welcome.