The Martian by Andy Weir (read in 2015)
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This is the story of a mission to Mars, the Ares 3. They are only days into their several-week–long mission before a freak windstorm forces them to abandon and escape by the skin of their teeth back to the Hermes, in orbit around Mars. Unfortunately, the wind tore a satellite antenna from its mooring and propelled it directly through Mark Watney, tearing him away into the howling, sandy darkness of the Martian night.
The crew is bereft, feeling survivor’s guilt. Watney, however, is not dead. He is left alone on the surface of Mars with a lot of technology at his disposal and food for a crew of six. Short-term survival is not a problem. It’s surviving long enough for a resupply mission that’s an issue. With the satellite antenna gone, he can’t even tell NASA that he survived. NASA notices that something is up when they see changes in the camp, so they know he’s alive. They keep this from the Hermes crew, at least at the beginning.
Mark does all sort of neat stuff to survive, described in at-times excruciating detail but very well-written and entertaining nonetheless. The writing started off quite stilted, with very short sentences and about a sixth-grade reading level—if that. About 1/3 of the way through, though, it picked up steam and became quite funny as more characters were introduced. Even Mark’s somewhat flat witticisms become sharper and funnier. I saw the movie before reading the book, but that didn’t ruin anything for me—as psychologists say, anticipation is just as enjoyable as surprise.
He locates and re-enables the Pathfinder in order to use it for communications. He farms potatoes. He re-enables the RTG as a heat source for long missions—like the one to the Area IV landing site on the other side of the planet. He makes it over there, the Hermes mission is extended to come pick him up, he takes the MAV from Ares IV to LMO (Low Mars Orbit) and they miraculously pick him up.
In this next piece, I laughed out loud at the Chinese response,
"My people have enjoyed working with your advance team,“ Guo Ming said. “The last month has been very interesting. Attaching an American Probe to a Chinese booster. I believe this is the first time it’s ever been done.”
“It just goes to show,” Teddy said,. “Love of science is universal across all cultures.”
Guo Ming nodded. “My people have especially commented on the work ethic of your man, Mitch Henderson. He is very dedicated.”
“He’s a pain in the ass,” Teddy said.
Su Bin paused before translating but pressed on.
Guo Ming laughed. “You can say that,” he said. “I cannot.”
Where Weir deviates a bit from reality (I think) is that many of the officials from the Chinese Space Agency required translators, even though China has the most English-speaking residents of any country in the world. If pretty much anyone graduating university in China today speaks English fluently, then I would imagine that the space program of the near future there would be staffed 100% by people who speak English. The movie deviated even farther in order to alienate the Chinese: in the book, their command center is pretty much the same as that in Houston. In the movie, the Americans tell the Chinese that their stuff is way out of date and that they’ll have to help them upgrade it. Kinda racist. No idea why they felt they had to do that. Didn’t really gibe with the rest of the movie.
“Mars is not Earth. It doesn’t have a thick atmosphere to bend light and carry particles that reflect light around corners. It’s damn near a vacuum here. Once the sun isn’t visible, I’m in the dark. Phobos gives me some moonlight, but not enough to work with. Deimos is a little piece of crap that’s no good to anyone.”
That is a spot-on description of my two rabbits, Pierre and Louis, respectively.
[19:24] MAV: What took them so long to let us talk?
[19:25] JOHANSSEN: The psych team was worried about personality conflicts.
[19:25] MAV: What” Just ‘cause you guys abandoned me on a godforsaken planet with no chance of survival?
[19:26] JOHANSSEN: Funny. Don’t make that kind of joke with Lewis.
[19:27] MAV: Roger. So uh … thanks for coming back to get me.
[19:27] JOHANSSEN: It’s the least we could do. How is the MAV retrofit going?
[19:28] MAV: So far, so good. NASA put a lot of thought into the procedures. They work. That’s not to say they’re easy. I spent the last 3 days removing Hull Panel 19 and the front window. Even in Mars-g they’re heavy motherfuckers.
[19:29] JOHANSSEN: When we pick you up, I will make wild, passionate love to you. Prepare your body.
[19:29] JOHANSSEN: I didn’t type that! That was Martinez! I stepped away from the console for like 10 seconds!
[19:29] MAV: I’ve really missed you guys.
That’s a pretty funny passage. However, Johanssen is the IT tech for the flight—the super-hacker. Super-hackers do not leave their terminals without locking them. Ever. Still, funny.
Another funny one that made it more-or-less verbatim into the movie.
"Hey,“ Watney said over the radio, “I’ve got an idea.”
“Of course you do,” Lewis said. “What do you got?”
“I could find something sharp in here and poke a hole in the glove of my EVA suit. I could use the escaping air as a thruster and fly my way to you. The source of thrust would be on my arm, so I’d be able to direct it pretty easily.”
“How does he come up with this shit?” Martinez interjected.
“Hmm,” Lewis said. “Could you get forty-two meters per second that way?”
“No idea,” Watney said.
“I can’t see you having any control if you did that,” Lewis said. “You’d be eyeballing the intercept and using a thrust vector you can barely control.”
“I admit it’s fatally dangerous,” Watney said. “But consider this: I’d get to fly around like Iron Man.”
“We’ll keep working on ideas,” Lewis said.
“Iron Man, Commander. Iron Man.”
After the MAV made it into orbit,
“Little remained of the canvas. Tatters floated along the edge of the hole it once covered. This granted Watney an unobstructed view of Mars from orbit. The red planet’s crater-pocked surface stretched out seemingly forever, its thin atmosphere a slight blur along the edge. Only eighteen people in history had personally seen this view.
““Fuck you,” he said to the planet below.”
The book tried to sell us on the power of the human spirit that makes billions pull together to save one guy. I think it’s more like boredom with the humdrum uselessness of our daily lives. Saving a guy on another planet is a challenge that is just better than what you were doing before. It’s not that you really want to save Mark Watney, but that you want to do something cool and no-one can fault you if you do something cool instead of what you’re supposed to be doing when it’s to save a famous man’s life.