Andy Weir’s The Martian is the kind of novel that is a manual of research and know-how, the kind of novel not every author will attempt. I read it when it came out, and was hugely entertained, not only because I’m one of those dreamers who harbour a life-long wish to visit Mars (but can only do so through Ray Bradbury’s stories), but because it’s a very unpredictable story. You don’t actually know how Mark Watney, the astronaut stranded on Mars who is probably Earth’s smartest man, would end up, or whether he would still be alive by the end of the book.
The science in the book is heavy, no doubt, and I don’t claim to understand all the chemistry, physics and botany involved, but I trusted Weir to get me through the science stuff unscathed. And he did. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the science behind everything that happened to Watney; you only need the consequences to drive the dramatic momentum. The science is like the extra sprinklings you put in your soup to add to the taste.
But Weir saved the best for the final pages – the Emotional Whopper that ends the novel perfectly, leaving you with an epiphanic moment, when you suddenly realise the impact everything that had happened to Watney would have back on Earth.
But make no mistake, The Martian is no literary masterwork. It is, at best, very entertaining pulp fiction. You can’t expect more, or even less, from a novel that opens with the line: “I’m pretty much fucked.”
Also, the main draw of the book is the central character, a very well fleshed-out one whose wit and humour are a large part of the book’s appeal. And the fact that even though he is smarter than the average MacGuyver, he isn’t indestructible. He still makes mistakes, still falls victim to his own emotions. Basically he is still a human being. And that’s what makes us connect with him.
Which brings us to Ridley Scott’s adaptation.
Scott hasn’t made a good film in years. Not one that I can recall. The Martian is probably his most memorable to date, even though Scott somehow manages to make it so much less than the novel, even when he got most of the important elements right.
Matt Damon’s version of the marooned astronaut is less witty, even though he is admittedly funny at times. Michael Pena’s Martinez is so much wittier. But Scott managed to trim the science down to digestible bite-sizes, keeping only the essentials, explaining only the necessary. Still, you will get bogged down by some of it.
The biggest problem with the film is that it has lost all the unpredictability of the story. There isn’t any doubt about the outcome of the rescue mission, of Watney’s fate. But credit where due, the film does do its best to throw us off, especially with Damon becoming increasingly scrawny and sickly looking. But in the end, where the book emphasises both the journey and the destination, the film has only the former to keep us interested.
Still, Scott managed to capture the emotional gravitas of the book’s ending, albeit with a very unnecessary epilogue.
But what most intrigues me about The Martian as a story, is the subtly subversive politics involved. While on the surface, it is about an astronaut stranded on Mars and trying his best to survive while waiting for a rescue that may or may not come, the real story is one that is pluralistic and emphasises an individual’s agency. In short, it’s a humanistic fantasy.
At every turn, the people in the story beat the odds simply because they thwart the system. They go against conventions, against rules and regulations, against authority. The story’s very strong distrust of authority is underlined by a moment in the film, when Watney likens Mars to the international waters back on Earth and fancies himself a kind of space pirate. Authority, namely governments and their agencies, are portrayed as being interested only in their own agendas. Jeff Daniel’s NASA director would rather have Watney die off on Mars than risk a huge PR disaster. Viable but risky plans to rescue Watney are thrown out by those in power, and only when individuals act collectively purely in the interest of humanity is there any glimmer of hope. The involvement of governments in the end is thoroughly absent. It’s people working together to save each other.
It’s all a fantasy, of course, but it’s still a very nice, hopeful, positive idea. It’s not about the ingenuity of one man, but the compassion and humanity of an entire planet. And that’s the best thing about The Martian, book and film.