I have started reading Andy Weir’s science fiction novel, The Martian, which is now a major motion picture starring Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an astronaut left stranded on Mars after the rest of his crew abandon him, having left him for dead. Watney is a modern-day Robinson Crusoe, left alone to fend for himself. It is a process novel where the minutia of Watney’s struggle for survival becomes the story. It is as the comic strip “xkcd” characterized it, a movie like that scene in the Ron Howard movie, Apollo 13, where NASA engineers are asked to jury-rig a CO2 scrubber out of a miscellaneous collection of parts that get dumped into their laps.
The whole book is like that scene, one jury-rigged solution to one problem after another. Watney manages to quickly knockdown most of his survival problems, save one, food. He goes to extraordinary lengths to figure out how to feed himself for the estimated four years that he will need to before rescue. That’s why I thought that using the graphic, Layla’s Burgers in Space, was fitting for this post. I photographed it yesterday in the Grove, on our ride. I’m sure that Watney would have killed for a nice fat juicy cheeseburger to go with the proto-French fries that he is growing.
Much has been made of the rigorousness of the science imbued in Weir’s novel. Originally written online in a serialized form, each chapter’s science was well vetted along the way. In fact, Weir himself admits to only one scientific inaccuracy, the Martian sandstorm that formants the original crisis. Due to Mars’s incredibly low air density, a 150 KPH sandstorm would only feel like the push from a gentle breeze. It is an excusable lapse, both because it is the story’s McGuffin, but also because it helps to symbolize man’s struggle against nature, which is the heart of this tale. I would say that I’m curious to learn how or even if Mark Watney survives, but I may have already gleamed that answer. Instead, I’ll have to content myself with the process of getting there.