Getting Back Is Half the Problem: The Martian, by Andy Weir

Weir, Andy. The Martian. New York: Broadway Books, 2014.9780804139021

I first heard about this book when it was mentioned in this XKCD comic. For whatever reason, that description, plus the film’s trailer, made me want to read it. AND SO HERE WE ARE, AT THE BEGINNING OF ANOTHER REVIEW.


Okay, plot summary: Mark Watney, a botanist and mechanical engineer, is accidentally left behind after the Ares 3 mission to Mars. In case you don’t know anything about interstellar travel, the distance between the Earth and Mars is roughly 140 million miles; it’s only 92 million miles from the sun to the Earth (a distance known as 1 Astronomical Unit, or AU), so the distance from the Earth to Mars is roughly one and a half times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. If you could travel the speed of light, you would be able to send a rescue mission across that distance in about 15 minutes, more or less. If you lived in the far future where there were ships waiting on the launch pad in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately for Watney, he lives in the more-or-less present, where technology is about what you’re familiar with and it’s going to take upwards of four years to get him rescued. And he has the rations sent for himself and five crew mates for thirty days, so all in all he has about one hundred and fifty days’ worth of food. Also, he has no way of communicating with NASA (the communications devices were damaged during the storm that caused his mission to abort). So he’s in what might be called a real pickle.

That’s the setup. I won’t give the ending away, since this is a relatively recent book, but if you haven’t read it and plan to, you should be aware that I will refer to details of the story later in this review that could potentially spoil parts of it for you. Consider yourself warned.

Watney faces his situation with a certain amount of nerve and a sense of humor. Most of the book is essentially epistlatory in nature, playing out through a series of log entries and email exchanges, although there are some narrative sections as well. Going beyond Watney, a lot of the supporting characters are not strongly drawn personalities; there’s Annie, the NASA media person, who cusses a lot; Venkat, the administrator who is in charge of the Ares project; Teddy, a higher-ranking administrator at NASA; Bruce, who is in charge of Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL); and some other astronauts who have various jobs. They are a mix of races and genders, but their characters didn’t feel distinct enough to be able to say, “This character’s drive is x, this one’s is y.” Perhaps because they all were working toward the same goal, and no one had any underhanded motives. It’s actually pretty easy to see why this book was picked to become a film[1]—the plot is really straightforward. There are certainly a lot of events that befall our hero as he scrapes through each day, but the goal—survival, getting off Mars—remains the same for the entire book, and with this sort of Man vs. Planet plot, there’s no need to humanize the opponent in the third act to set up some sort of gray area. And, as I said, the characters have only a few characteristics given—this one likes disco, this one likes old mystery novels—so for an actor, they might be a lot of fun to add more details to and really bring to life.

One thing this book does really effectively is teach the engineering mindset. This is something I’ve been getting into myself, since I’ve been learning how to write code the past few weeks. Basically when I say engineering mindset, what I mean is a step-based, iterative approach to problem-solving. You have a particular large issue—“How do I stay alive on a hostile planet for four years?”—and break it down into pieces. What do you need to survive? Food, water, shelter. Okay, what methods can you use to get food? (Hint: The hero, conveniently, is a botanist.) Once you have a method, if you can use this method to produce x amount of food, where the total amount you need is z and zx is > 0, how can you start to increase your yield? And so on. It’s not necessarily super thrilling, but it actually feels like how an astronaut might approach a problem like this, which is kind of neat.[2] I can tell now, looking at the film’s trailer, that a lot of stuff has been added in to provide emotional interest, whereas the book was heavy on the science and low on the human stuff (second trailer: super funny). I hope they don’t get rid of too much of the science stuff, since one of the neater sides of the book was getting to see something about how NASA, the JPL, and the various astronauts work on problems and think through things. For example, I didn’t realize that they were so concerned with mission failures that a 4% margin of error is considered unacceptably high. (Or perhaps it’s not, but the book is fairly accurate about a lot of space-related stuff.)[3] Somewhat unfortunately, during the times Watney is in contact with NASA/JPL, a lot of his narrative is reduced to “Did what NASA said. Awaiting next transmission.” He doesn’t go rogue or rebel. He just wants to do right and live through this. But his willingness to cooperate is really a hint at the intriguing central question of this book.

The soul of this book, the question it really grapples with, is not a scientific one but a human one: Why spend so much money and so many resources (both physical resources in terms of food and technology and ephemeral resources like time and manpower) to rescue one guy? A few of the characters in the book bring this up sort of peripherally—by expending all their efforts to get Watney, NASA is giving up a lot of other research projects that could be providing data (and they’re not the only one—NASA’s Chinese counterparts bemoan the loss of data a probe was supposed to bring them even as they hand it over to be used for this mission. Reporters, whose constant presence seems unfortunately very realistic, question whether the expenditure of money is worth it. The book’s answer is decisively yes, and it’s not just because Watney is such a winning character. As Watney puts it (you can hear him saying this if you go watch the trailer), people’s natural instinct is to pull together in a disaster—giving blood or money, volunteering to help in some way. The book is not about man’s inhumanity to man, as is the case with so many works, but about man’s humanity to man in the face of adversity. It’s a thought that feels startlingly naïve, and yet one that’s welcome in this age of strife.

I’m not usually a hard scifi person, but this book was an exciting and quick read. Weir is a good writer; he’s not poetic by any means, but he’s funny and has a solid grasp of his craft. His characters are smart. I’d say on the whole there aren’t enough female scientists represented—most of the characters are male—but that actually feels kind of petty here. And the women who do appear are as strong and smart as their male peers; in all the depiction is much more satisfying than the one in Dune. Sorry, Frank.

[1] In addition to the other things, the film being set on Mars, a very red-orange planet, gives the filmmakers a chance to make everything as orange and teal as possible.

[3] How dangerous it is to be an astronaut depends on how you look at who exactly is an astronaut and what exactly counts as an astronaut-related death (for example, a test pilot flying a plane at sufficient altitude could be considered to have entered space without actually being an astronaut; there have been a lot of deaths during training missions, both spaceflight-related, as Apollo I, and unrelated, as various plane crashes that have killed astronauts). Wikipedia says there have been eighteen in-space deaths in four incidents, thirteen non-space (training) deaths, and also lists a bunch of non-astronaut space-program-related fatalities, such as NASA personnel who got caught in the wrong place when things blew up. There have been 536 people in space as of November 2013, meaning that astronauts have a death rate of something like 5.78%. Yikes.

“Spice must flow”: Dune Reviewed

Herbert, Frank. Dune. Ace Special 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Ace Books, 1990.

Dune is apparently the most popular science fiction book ever published. I’m not kidding—you can google that shit. Anyway, this year is the 50th anniversary of its publication (1965–2015), and I had never read it. Then one night I was having a discussion with B about world building in scifi/fantasy and he said, “Every universe has one thing that it’s centered around. In Star Wars, it’s the Force. In Dune, it’s the spice.”

I was unfamiliar. Having just finished Solaris, I decided I would rectify that and dug out our copy.[1] Soon I was deep into to the world of the gom jabbar and the kwizach hadarach, the reverend mother and the melange. Many a night in the last few weeks I was up far past my bedtime, tellling myself I’d read just a few more pages before I turned out the light.

In case you, like me, have been living under a rock for the last my entire lifetime and then some, this is the plot (spoilers ahead):

Duke Leto Atreides, his concubine Lady Jessica, who is a highly trained Bene Gesserit adept, their fifteen-year-old son Paul (who has also been trained in his mother’s weirding ways), and the duke’s entire entourage pick up and move from Caladan, a normal-sounding planet with lakes and rainfall, to Arrakis, also called Dune, a desert planet where it never rains and the native Fremen wear special stillsuits designed to reclaim all bodily moisture for recycling. Arrakis was previously ruled by the Harkonnens, who are the mortal enemies of the Atreides, and the switch got made basically because the Padishah Emperor decided it should happen.

Not long after their arrival, the duke receives notice that there is a traitor in his midst. And then, returning from a night of supervising his troops, Duke Leto finds that the Harkonnens have engineered a plot to land highly trained imperial troops on the planet, kill him and his family, and take the place back.

After a daring escape and a lot of running around in which nearly every character you’ve come to care about dies in rapid-fire succession, Paul and the Lady Jessica wind up getting adopted by a band of Fremen led by a man named Stilgar. Lady Jessica actually takes Stilgar in close combat (unarmed) to gain their acceptance, and later on Paul knifes a guy, so it’s not like this part of their journey was easy. After they return to the Fremen home base, Lady Jessica (who is pregnant with the late duke’s child) is tested with the Water of Life and becomes a Reverend Mother (a type of religious leader), which means that she gets certain powers primarily related to communicating psychically (in a sense) with the band’s previous Reverend Mothers. This isn’t good for the fetus (who will grow up to be St. Alia of the Knife), but what can you do.

Meanwhile, Paul falls in love with a Fremen woman named Chani, and they will have a son together in fairly short order, because I guess condoms don’t exist in the year 10,191. Paul, now known by the Fremen as Usul (privately) and Maud’dib (publically), to say nothing of his other titles (Lisan al-Ghaib for one, and Kwisatz Haderach for another) is able to see the future to some extent because of the spice, his natural inclinations, and the Water of Life. Eventually, he leads the Fremen to freedom from the Harkonnens and bullies the emperor into abdicating and letting him marry his daughter in a political alliance, making him at about age 17 or 18 the emperor.

Whew. So it’s a long book. I actually haven’t touched on about 90% of what goes on, because there’s a ton of subplots. The gist of it is that everyone has a plan. The Bene Gesserit, for example, have been manipulating the various nobles in a breeding program to try and get the Kwisatz Haderach. What they intend to do with him is not clear.[2] Baron Harkonnen has a plan to get his nephew Feyd-Rautha on the imperial throne as well, which somehow involves his other nephew (“Beast” Rabban) taking over Arrakis as ruler and running it into the ground; that’s to say nothing of his initial plot to kill Duke Leto, of course. The emperor has his own plots involving control of the spice market and the nobility. The Guild (the ones who fly everyone around through space) take spice from the Fremen in exchange for preventing weather satellite and other disturbances, giving the Fremen time to execute their plan—the very gradual terraforming of Dune. I think there might be even more plots than that, some of which don’t really play out until the sequel.

This is an interesting and problematic book for a number of reasons. First, there are the women. I’ll just say that Lady Jessica is basically one of the best female characters I’ve ever encountered. Super smart, unflappable in the face of danger, highly deadly in hand-to-hand combat, and capable of undergoing the spice agony and transforming the Water of Life within her body—basically a bad ass. Highly determined and difficult to control, too—did I mention she’d originally been ordered by the Bene Gesserit to produce a daughter for Duke Leto rather than Paul? She does what she wants. She also has two kids who are highly trained Bene Gesserit adepts, trained by herself. I should mention at this point that Herbert evidently based Lady Jessica on his wife, which makes me pretty happy because in other respects he was a little bit shitty (I’ll get to this) and I feel like it redeems him for me a bit.

Unfortunately, the other women in the book are not quite as exciting as characters go, mainly because there is a strong male/female divide throughout the text. Not just within the Reverend Mothers, as I mentioned earlier, although there is that and it’s explained away by the fact that men take and women give and it’s hard for the two sides to look at each other, which would be an interesting sentiment if Herbert followed it to its natural gender-deconstructing answer in Paul, but he doesn’t. Beyond that, women are largely confined to the home and sietch (the Fremen settlements); they counsel and advise, and they have children, and they plot, but they have to have men to listen to them/to manipulate in order to actually achieve anything. Chani, the woman Paul falls in love with, is out on patrol with a group of Fremen when he meets her, and she actually knifes a couple of people over the course of the book . . . until she has kids and gets sent to a safe place for most of the rest of the story. Also, after she meets Paul she basically has no concerns besides his well-being throughout the rest of the book. Within the Fremen society, if you kill a guy, you are asked to take care of his wife and kids—and you’re given the option of marrying the wife or taking her as a servant for at least one year, and it doesn’t seem like she gets much say in the matter. The woman Paul inherits in this way seems very practical and totally willing to marry a guy who knifed her husband not 24 hours before. Women in the sietch basically exist to produce children; they do a few other sietch jobs but they’re there, and the men care for them. The other major female character is Reverent Mother Helen Mohiam, who is scheming and manipulative—scary and powerful, but only by acting through others, primarily the emperor.

In a somewhat related vein, we have the Harkonnens, who are the enemies of the Atreides and very evil. We know they’re evil because—and this is where the writing of Frank Herbert sort of fails to come into its own—the second chapter involves Baron Vladimir Harkonnen basically telling us his evil, evil plot to kill the Atreides through devious underhandedness while he strokes his mustache and laughs maniacally. If that weren’t explicit enough, we also get all these signs (and by signs I mean, I guess, stereotypes) that tell us the baron is a bad dude—he’s super fat, for one (he has to wear suspensors to maneuver his bulk around) and is a glutton for food and power. He’s homosexual, or at least seems to prefer men; he also expresses lustful thoughts about then-15-year-old Paul and not only buys slaves but has them drugged so he can have sex with them more easily. He makes his nephew, Feyd-Rautha, kill people—and okay, it’s not like his nephew was a good guy either, because we see him displaying his killing talents by fighting gladiators with a poisoned blade.[3]

Both of these things—the women’s rather distinct position in society and the rather heavy-handed “clues” to the Baron’s evilness (fatness, homosexuality)—feel like relics of the time period of the book’s initial publication. I’ve talked before about the feeling one gets, reading old science fiction, that while writers (inevitably men) were sort of sure that women would exist in the future, none of them are exactly clear on what they’ll be doing. “Women doing science? Having thoughts? Why would these things ever happen?” they seem to think, and so you see women along in various situations—spaceships and what have you—in which they serve as some sort of more or less sophisticated window dressing. I’m looking at you, Uhura. The Baron’s indicators of evil just feel dated. First, I have to wonder, given the average size of people in 1965 compared to 2015, how fat Herbert thought was so fat it needed anti-gravity devices to move around. Second—and this is what I mean when I said this is kind of shitty of Herbert—he had two sons. One (Brian Herbert) has made his living clinging to Dune’s coattails; the other, Bruce Herbert, was a gay activist who died of AIDS in 1993. Now, at the time Dune was published, Bruce would have been 14, which at the time was very young for a kid to be out of the closet, so I’m perfectly willing to believe that Herbert was mostly reflecting the unconsidered opinions of the time and may have changed his tune later on when he found out his son was gay. But still, kind of shitty.[4]

The book has a bunch of really interesting themes that Herbert addresses with varying levels of sophistication. For example, the tendency of people to follow leaders rather unquestioningly, the uses (and problems) of being able to see the future, the idea of fate and whether or not it can be avoided or changed, the question of the greater good, and different systems of government and their benefits and drawbacks. Perhaps most interestingly, Herbert is concerned with the intertwining of religion and politics; Paul benefits from the Bene Gesserit’s propagandists, who basically primed the community of Fremen to believe in him.

Actually, there are a lot more questions I have to ask about this book, like is it another example of the “White guy joins a foreign culture and becomes its most awesome member” genre (surprisingly hard to answer briefly), as well as the converse position, “Is everyone on Dune White?” (films say yes), but this review is already well over 2,000 words, so I don’t have time here. So to wrap up: Herbert’s writing is exciting if mostly unpoetic (he has his moments), and the text is very engrossing. This particular edition of the book is nice in that there’s a dictionary at the back as well as some other appendices that try to explain the world Paul’s living in. It does suffer from less-than-perfect typography, which includes not just quotation marks facing the wrong way, but also lines of text printed at different sizes and sometimes even randomly repeated. I’d guess that there’s been a better reprinting since 1990, so if you’re looking to read the book, seek that out.

[1] I was given my copy of Dune by a friend I’d lent a calculus textbook for a semester to as a thank-you present.

[2] Basically,when the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers look into their minds, they can see a sort of hallway with all the Reverend Mothers along it, and they are able to receive advice from those who came before—so history is preserved within them, as a sort of living racial memory. But there’s a male side to the corridor too, and none of them can access that information. So they have embarked on a breeding program to produce a man who can. Why they want that information and why they thought such a person would be someone they can control is not revealed.

[3] Part of this scene reveals that it’s typical to fight the gladiators when drugged, which seems unfair. Feyd-Rautha instead fights them undrugged, but with a conditioned “stop” word that he can use as a distraction to stab the guy. In one of those awesome literary parallels, Feyd also has a similar word implanted in him, but during their final combat Paul refuses to use it . . . and yet, his saying “I’m not going to say it” makes Feyd freeze enough that Paul can stab him. So. What happened.

[4] One always wants to believe that writers have more considered opinions than other people and think the “right” thing even when others are still against it. Of course, this is clearly not the case—there have been plenty of racist/sexist/homophobic writers who were still great writers (see the line about “The Earth, that with this strange excuse/Pardoned Kipling and his views” in the William Butler Yeats farewell poem written by W. H. Auden). Auden later removed that stanza, which makes me wonder if he actually decided that the Earth does not pardon Kipling . . . but regardless of his [Auden’s] thoughts on the matter, there are a lot of people who have forgiven Kipling.