Missions to space require quite the prep time or so I’ve been told. Still emotionally unstable from Endgame, it took me a while to fully get into the space-y mood. But I do love space as topic of fiction and there is a lot of ground to cover – literally – so let’s get into the first review. The last couple of years have been good ones for fans of outer space and intergalactic scifi so I have a lot to choose from.
One of the most successful, more realistically futuristic astronaut movies of the last few years was The Martian – starring no actual green, weird-eyed Martians but only Matt Damon. I wasn’t as much into space back when that movie came out or maybe the public conscience wasn’t as obsessed with space – it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes – but I do remember watching it not in the cinema but on a tiny airplane tv-screen en route to whoknowswhere. And it still made an impact. I really liked Matt Damon’s performance and I also really liked the story and the visuals are a little orange for my taste but absolutely stunning in their desolation. But this review is not about that movie.
It’s on the book the movie is based on. To be really specific, it is about the English audiobook of the book that the movie is based on. That audiobook is probably my most-listened to audiobook to date. I just started it over today for what I am estimating to be the 6thtime. So by this point, I am an expert on survival on Mars myself. Kidding, I’d die instantly.
As always when a rambling post is coming up, here are the facts as bullet points. And by facts I mean my very subjective thoughts on the matter.
- It’s slightly futuristic scifi – humans can fly to Mars but barely and there are no aliens
- The premise is survival of a lone astronaut on Mars
- I never thought an astronaut fighting for survival on Mars would be so relatable
- He is basically space McGyver
- You root for him because you (stupidly) think that you would react similarly
- His ingenuity and creativity but also his mundane, funny thoughts make him a great character
- Personally, I could learn from his determination and discipline and definitely learned some hopefully true facts about humans, space and botany
The story has the pretty simple premise of an astronaut being left on Mars, fighting for survival. But if that were easy, we would’ve spread throughout the galaxy long ago. Astronaut Mark Watney is part of the third manned mission to Mars and is trained as both an electrical engineer and a botanist. Mere days into their stay on Mars, his crew is forced to abort their mission and to evacuate Mars due to a sandstorm threatening their return route. During the evacuation process, Watney is hurt, presumed dead and consequently left behind with no way back and no way of communicating with Earth. While out whole planet mourns his loss and his crew is on their months long journey back, he is left to fend for himself on Mars.
Luckily, this is just a slightly futuristic scenario and not full on science fiction with aliens and warp drive and what not. His challenges are only of this world as in “he is lacking pretty much everything from this world needed to survive”. Alone on a planet without air, water or food beyond the allotted supplies from the aborted mission he still maintains that pesky human quality of stubborn hopefulness that he might survive. He knows about another mission that is scheduled to arrive in a couple years’ time on the other side of the planet and he is determined to make it.
The Martian portion of the book is mostly his log book where he narrates his thought processes and actions in trying to conserve his efforts for the event of his death. There are portions of the book from the perspective of NASA officials, his crew on the ship and others but mostly the book is from the perspective of the only living creature on Mars. A highly intelligent, highly skilled and highly trained individual but still only human. Which is exactly what makes this book so amazing. To me, an astronaut is about the wildest thing I can imagine in terms of determination, training, fearlessness and other really admirable qualities, so thinking about it abstractly, I would never think that one of them fighting for survival on Mars would be so damn relatable.
But Mark Watney is just a guy, with a particular skillset doing his best to bullshit his way to survival. Sure, most of his time is spent figuring out basic need problems such as food, water and air by hacking and DIYing solutions from millions worth of disassembled NASA equipment with the threat of imminent death hanging over him. But basically, he is just space McGyver. Talking himself through the chemical reactions and processes of electrical engineering would be a little dull if it wasn’t for the constant feeling of awe at his creativity, problem solving skills and determination. I don’t think I have ever rooted for someone more because the whole time you feel like this is such a normal guy that you could imagine that you yourself, given the proper knowledge and training beforehand would’ve maybe come up with similar ideas. Which is bullshit of course, but he seems so human and so relatable that it definitely felt that way to me. That feeling of relatability is also aided by Watney’s stream of consciousness that includes incredibly sarcastic, funny and also super mundane thoughts anyone has going about their normal lives. I for one, am absolutely on board with renaming things to Pirate Ninjas or choosing a Mars rover based on personal preference rooted in absolutely nothing scientific simply because anyone who could stop you is on a different planet.
What I also take away from this book is his problem-solving approach by breaking down tasks a lot, giving it time and testing theories out somewhat carefully. I also admire the determination not to die, his necessary habit of double checking and his (forced) autonomy. All very good, if very abstract, life lessons that might be applicable to life on Earth. I also learned a lot of facts about Earth and Martian atmosphere, botany and chemistry – I sure hope those are actually true.
In short, both movie and book – and consequently the audiobook – paint the overachiever astronaut in the impossible to grasp situation as such a normal, relatable and funny guy that you definitely end up rooting for him. I almost wrote “that you enjoy to follow his struggles” but I don’t think that sends the right message. I also specifically want to point out that the audiobook is what I’m talking about as I have rarely listened to a better done audiobook. I am not an audiobook expert, but the way that the reader fleshed out Watney and also the other small roles was very lively, differentiated and pointed. As a book, I imagine that some of the more scientific talk might be a bit more of a snooze (and at this point I can’t remember if I have actually read the book and my kindle has died for good so there is no checking) but with the audiobook it’s easy to tune out for a sec when chemistry comes to play.
The Martian by Andy Weir was a #1 New York Times bestseller and the audiobook read by R.C. Bray also won some price for best science fiction audiobook. Which is completely deserved. I’m not sure about the length of it in actual book form but it is a fairly short audiobook at just under 11 hours of listening time. I know the audiobook is available through audible but I think the book and download versions are available pretty much everywhere too. Oh, and watch the movie – it is a pretty good and very close adaption with great visuals. I also want to mention Andy Weir’s other space theme novel, Artemis. It is set on the moon where humans have built a colony. I have listened to this book as well and enjoyed it too – even though not nearly as much as The Martian.