The Power of People Working Together and THE MARTIAN

Note: This post involves minor spoilers. 

A significant portion of Andy Weir’s The Martian centers around a lone astronaut using his wits to survive in impossible circumstances.

During a massive sandstorm and an evacuation of the mars expedition team, astronaut Mark Watney is hit by a radio dish and presumed dead. But he wakes on Mars alone, still alive in a hostile environment. The only way to survive is to use scientific knowledge and engineering skills to make an uninhabitable world inhabitable for four years when the next Mars mission is set to return.

Space and travel to other planets are incredibly dangerous for human being. There are thousands of ways for a person to die, from severe cold to lack of atmosphere to the wrong oxygen/nitrogen/carbon dioxide mixture in a space suit. A small error in judgment, one tiny unconsidered element of physics (like a single flawed bolt or a piece of overstretched fabric) can mean catastrophe and death. This epically fun book makes this danger brutally clear.

Watney, faced with surviving these dangers on Mars alone, must come up with ingenious ways to get around a number of mounting problems. He’s a great character — snarky, smart, and capable. Reading his logs is a bit like reading a science and humor blog, with all the irreverence and sarcasm. His humor (which keeps him from lapsing into the kind of depression that could kill him) is a large part of what kept me reading the book. More than once I had to put the book down in order to just sit there and giggle to myself. For example: “Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.” 

A lone astronaut works alone to survive in The Martian.

Although, this lone survivor story is great, what really drew me fully into the story was when NASA figured out that Watney was still alive. The shock of the people at NASA at his survival and their leap into action is fantastic. Thousands of people and millions of dollars are pulled together with the aim of finding a way to bring Watney home. It gives a great sense of the manpower behind these various space programs and the level of research and testing required to make a little thing like a bolt function properly under extreme conditions.

As word spreads beyond NASA and into the press, people around the world — all helpless to actually do anything to help — rally around the desire to help Mark Watney survive and come home to Earth. Sure it’s a lot of focus on one small speck of a man, but this coming together around a single purpose really moves me.

As Watney explains, “If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do.”

Reading this, I realized that I love and often prefer stories that involve people working together cooperatively, despite differences and disagreements, over the the kinds of stories that involve a single person achieving something great alone. These kinds of stories of strangers made family and groups working together move me on a deep level, and I would love to see even more of them made.

On a related note, I can’t freaking wait to see THE MARTIAN movie. My weekend is packed and I’m really too busy, but I’m still trying to find a way to fit it in.

(P.S. The only thing that bothers me about this video is the image of a white male police officer hugging a black female, which feels manipulative and trite in the face of the immensity of the real world problem that needs to be dealt with. Although, it doesn’t surprise me, as Hollywood has a long history of oversimplifying real life situations.)