MacGyver on Mars

The Martian @To imagine being marooned on a freezing, rusting rock, 14 light-minutes from home, with only a spacesuit and glorified tent to keep out the minus-60-degree temperatures and unfiltered radiation of atmosphereless Mars invites vertiginous panic. Carl Sagan described contemplating the mystery of the cosmos: “a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice; a faint sensation as of a distant memory of falling from a great height.” Might being marooned on Mars inspire a similar feeling?

Not for our hero in The Martian, by first-time novelist Andy Weir. Supercompetent space bro Mark Watney seems to have been prescreened against such musings. Actually, he’s a bit of a joker. Watney’s the class clown who aced math and science classes without cracking a book, the guy who devises ingenious solutions to every problem on a camping trip before getting hammered. Though he begins keeping a log with an understanding that it will be a historic document, he doesn’t put on any airs. The novel’s first lines are: “I’m pretty much f**d. That’s my considered opinion. F**d.”

Watney, we learn, was left for dead after his crewmates saw him impaled by an antenna and blown away during a dust storm that cut the mission short. With their ship teetering on the edge of a catastrophic rollover from the wind, and Watney’s suit communicating no vital signs, they blast off for the eight-month trip back to Earth.

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At least that’s what Watney surmises. For the first part of the book, his log entries are the sole narrative. He takes stock of his food, water and oxygen supplies, the shelter and rover, meant to last a few months, which now must last…well, he doesn’t know. Best not to think about it.

Weir establishes a pattern that holds for most of the book: Introduce seemingly insoluble dilemma; propose possible solutions with varying degrees of confidence and potential failures with gallows humor; report how it went in subsequent entry. We’re given a plausible scenario for survival, with improvised agriculture, jury-rigged life-support and communications – even instructions for making water from rocket fuel. The solutions are convincingly real and detailed without sounding too technical; the acronyms and jargon are sufficient to give the impression of authenticity without boring the reader.

Our upbeat, sometimes-hilarious narrator feels human in his dorky celebration of minor victories and his repulsion by – and eventual surrender to – his crewmates’ music and television show collections, his sole source of entertainment. What’s surprising is the omission of all but a few lines of backstory and lack of anyone other than his unnamed parents waiting for him back home. Our hero has the instinct of self-preservation, but beyond that, the story doesn’t give him something or someone to live for. He doesn’t change or learn anything. There are moments of peril, but not many of emotion, though Watney’s final log entry is unexpectedly poignant.

That poignancy comes from the massive undertaking of NASA’s plan to rescue him. The world is transfixed. The rescue of one man is worth the full attention of America’s best and brightest and billions of dollars. One might wonder: How many starving children could have been saved with such an effort? The Martian doesn’t. Instead, it marvels at the ingenuity and audacity of the enterprise.

Weir, a self-described “space geek,” has written a book that evokes the heady days when NASA’s missions were front-page news; when we went to the Moon because we could, and we could because we decided that we must. What similar, awe-inspiring acts of collective will can our own time lay claim to, when the most revered supergeeks are in Silicon Valley creating algorithms for ever-more-creepily-targeted advertising, rather than 400 miles south at the Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, designing the next generation of interstellar rocket ships?

The Martian is not science fiction. A manned Mars mission within 20 years is possible, and the technology deployed in the novel is only incrementally superior to today’s. (They never did improve on duct tape.) But it is unlikely, for the very reason that the story is worth telling: Space flight is dangerous stuff, and humans are pathetically delicate compared to machines. The latest generation of Mars rovers are first-rate mobile laboratories that can dig, drill, analyze and monitor without need of food, water, warmth or love.

Still, a nerd can dream.

The Martian by Andy Weir, 2014, Crown Publishing Group. Available in hardcover at local bookstores and libraries, though there were several holds as of last week.

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