The Value of a Life:
A Book Review of The Martian
The Martian shatters expectations. This exceptionally unique book follows astronaut Mark Watney after he is abandoned on Mars. After I read the plot summary for the first time I thought, “Oh, this is just another survivor story.” I figured it was simply a Robinson Crusoe or Castaway with a modern twist. I finally gave into reading it maybe a year later when it still had it’s own table at Barnes and Noble and had become a blockbuster film. Although I was skeptical at first, The Martian has quickly become one of my favorite books. If you don’t like sci-fi but like fiction, you’ll want to read The Martian. If you don’t like fiction but like history and science, you also will enjoy this excellent book. The Martian stands out among the world of fiction and sci-fi as something that is truly novel.
The Martian is an extremely creative book that the average best-selling author couldn’t hope to produce. The reason is because Andy Weir is not an author. At least he wasn’t before The Martian. Weir is an engineer, a software engineer to be exact. His hobbies are math, physics, and studying (real) space exploration. Most authors wanting to produce a real-science sci-fi novel will think of a story and then research the science that will make their book believable. Weir did the opposite. He has spent his life studying astrophysics, building software to formulate space travel routes, and figuring out how to survive an endless number of disasters in space. Then he wrote a novel about it. Weir has received praise from scientists, engineers, and astronauts all over the globe for his scientific accuracy. The Martian actually started as a self-published work where he published one chapter at a time on his website. Later it became a 99 cent ebook. Soon after it became so popular that he was offered a print publishing contract and a sale of movie rights within a week of each other. Weir has successfully broken the typical trend of how to become a famous author and hopefully it will encourage others like him to produce equally excellent books.
How This Book Shatters Expectations
Because this is a survival story, you expect astronaut Mark Watney to encounter one life threatening situation after another. He does, but these catastrophes are not as explosive as you would expect. He doesn’t face volcanic eruptions or meteor bombardments. He faces disasters on the most basic level. Breathing, staying warm, eating, drinking-Mars constantly threatens to steal these simple life functions away from him. This may not seem as exciting as the whirlwind of action you can expect from most of today’s stories, but Mark goes about solving these issues in the most fascinating ways.
The science within the story keeps you interested. It is not complicated, rather it is quite accessible. Most of the science vital to Mark’s survival can be learned in high school. Mark just needs to employ that knowledge in creative ways. Here’s an example. Mark needs food to survive, but he only has enough rations to last him a fraction of the time it would take for a rescue mission to save him. Mark decides to seed 6 potatoes from his food supply in order to grow more potato plants. Now that’s a pretty simple endeavor-if you’re on earth. So what does it take to grow a plant? Heat, air, proper soil, water, and light. The problem is temperature can range from -10 to -125 degrees Celsius in a day. Mars only has 0.4 of the atmosphere of earth. The soil on Mars doesn’t have any bacteria, and there isn’t a drop of water to be found. So how does one go about starting a potato farm on Mars? Well that’s the sort of thing Mark figures out. On Mars, survival of the fittest means survival of the geekiest.
Mark ends up spending over a year on Mars. We would expect a hero like that to become stoic and depressed, yet driven and filled with resolve. In actuality, he’s a big goof ball. He’s a class clown, just without the classmates. Throughout the entire book we learn almost no backstory about Mark’s life. There’s no family waiting on earth for him. There aren’t any lovers, pals, or even pets. All he has is an innate desire to survive, and a sense of humor to keep himself sane. With humour, Mark counters events that would send most people into a depression. Towards the end of his journey when rations are getting low he says, “I started the day with some nuthin’ tea. Nuthin’ tea is easy to make. First, get some hot water, then add nuthin’. Mark isn’t the typical hero. Basically he’s a funny nerd with really bad luck.
Another unique aspect of the book is that it is written from multiple perspectives. Most of the book is a record of Mark’s journal logs. Part way through the book we start seeing events from the perspective of Earth. Occasionally the reader gets the “divine” view of knowing what’s about to happen even though the characters do not. This transition between perspectives is done skillfully and seamlessly.
The Value of a Life
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is that everyone is willing to do whatever it takes to save Mark. When NASA discovers that Mark is still alive, the world gets captured by his story. CNN creates a daily show devoted to covering the latest on Mark Watney. Space programs around the world try to figure out ways to keep him alive and spend billions of dollars in the process. It is inspiring to see how people of all cultures and religions join hands in saving this one man.
Now here is the million dollar question. Would we really do whatever it takes to save a man stranded on Mars?
I think we would! I believe the world would really respond the way it does in the book. The story would fill the news headlines. #SaveWatney would probably be a top trending topic for months on end. The brightest minds in the world would work day and night on a solution to his plight. In the end I believe we really would be willing to spend billions to save just one man and that is because we are born with an innate understanding that human life is special. When miners get trapped underground, the world wants to save them. When a flight with hundreds of people goes missing, everyone wants to know what happened. When a family dies in a car crash, we mourn. Why is that? Because life is special and deep down we all know it. Life is special because it is a gift. It is given to us by our Creator so that whether young or old, born or unborn, miner or astronaut, all lives are worth saving.
You can contact Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org