I have finished The Martian by Andy Weir and…

…it was spectacular.

It has been nice to read a faced-paced novel for a change.  What I really like about The Martian doesn’t have anything to do with the plot.  I would never think that I would say that about science fiction.  There are three aspects of this novel that really struck me and that seem to be striking a lot of people.

First, the characters feel real and lived in.  Even the desk jockeys at NASA all have their little quirks that makes their characters interesting.  Of course, given the pace of the novel there isn’t really time to develop them, but this isn’t that type of novel.  This is a snapshot in time, and that time has everyone focused on one goal.  Remember when America did that? It was a long time ago.  It was really interesting to me to see a take on what certain characters would do when put under varying amounts of pressure.  Some of it is job pressure, some of it is emotional pressure and some of it is survival pressure.  That is actually a great deal of what Weir has done here.  He’s created a novel about how people deal with different types of pressure, in my opinion.  There is also a lot of humor, at exactly the right places, that cuts through that pressure.

The next best thing about the novel, for me, was the narrative structure.  Do you know how often I say that or even think it?  Maybe that’s a commentary on the type of books that I read and maybe I need to “get out more” in literature.  I don’t know.  But this book is interesting to me because the writing style shifts as needed according to events.  Weir is very clever about cutting between different groups and via different communicative media to keep the novel interesting.

The science in The Martian is very accurate.  It is far from perfect, but very accurate.  The mental effort that someone would have to go through in Mark Watney’s situation was extreme.  I’m pretty sure most of us would just lay down and die.  The amount of problem solving and cost/benefit analysis that goes on is a model of realistic careful thinking.  He doesn’t get everything right.  He’s human. But the scientific process works for him, as it should.  Physics is physics.

I do have several small gripes about the science.  Chief among them is how the accident that strands him on the surface in the first place happens.  The one thing that Weir flubs is the strength of the storms on Mars and what they are (or are not) capable of. But, I guess you have to strand the guy somehow. These complaints are minor compared to the message this book gives about science.

The Martian may be the ultimate tale of scientific perseverance and eucatastrophe.  What if we simply Han Solo a terrible situation and say:  “Never tell me the odds.”  Sure, you’d need a hefty helping of “I have a bad feeling about this”, but the sentiment is important.  This actually applies pretty well to success in games too!

If you play games, and especially if you play competitively, the top lesson that I can give anyone who cares to be “successful” is to never give up.  This is an important philosophy in learning as well.  Even “successful” people fail all the time.  The worst kind won’t admit it. But it’s true.  If you choose to give up, you are guaranteeing that you won’t succeed, by your own admission.  You are making it a certainty.  If you don’t give up, you may still fail. But you might also succeed.  Experienced individuals realize that we are often our own worst enemy when it comes to interpreting the direness of a situation.  We’re just really bad at predicting the fine line by which failure is a certainty.  So, by scientific reasoning, if you can’t precisely predict that line of demarcation, you fight the good fight so as to have your best chance to fall on the side of victory.  That is something that is alluded to in Avengers 2.

Stark:  “…how do we cope with something like that?”

Rogers: “Together.”

Stark: “We’ll lose.”

Rogers: “We do that together too.”

Captain America gets it.  HARDCORE.  Stark doesn’t.  Stark is your typical “genius IQ with no social acumen or experience” kind of trope.  He doesn’t get it because he hasn’t lived enough in the kinds of ways that show the value of perseverance or “the long defeat”.  He’s right in that they may still lose.  But not even trying is a resignation to that and is the most unscientific of perspectives.

In my classroom, I have a giant banner that says “Courage” in our school colors.  Because, honestly, that in of itself is often what people need.  Part of my role as a professional is to support the very difficult, yet very important, small acts of courage that students commit in my classroom.  I’m not saying that they’re lives aren’t difficult.  I’m saying that if they can just give me an inch, I can help them stretch it into a mile.

Back on topic, The Martian goes into my top science fiction books of all time.  Here they are:

1) A Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

2) Dune, Frank Herbert

3) The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

4) The Martian, Mark Weir

5) Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

That’s some pretty titanic company.


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