The Martian Background

The Martian Background

Andy Weir wrote The Martian as a self published eBook in 2011. He drew heavily on his own experience as a computer programmer and on his extensive personal knowledge of physics, orbital mechanics, and space trivia.

The novel’s plot is fairly simple: one man, Mark Watney, is stranded accidentally on Mars when the rest of his team evacuates the planet, believing him dead. The story, which is told in episodes as though it were a log or journal, focuses on Mark Watney’s efforts and innovations as he struggles to survive despite lack of food and resources. The log also provides access to Mark Watney’s innermost thoughts and feelings, which are sometimes expressed in colorful language. From time to time, the novel depicts Mark’s crewmates on board the spaceship Hermes, and also various NASA scientists, engineers, and administrators.

The central themes of the novel include isolation, risk, the human survival instinct, and the limits to which people will go to rescue a person in distress. Mark Watney's isolation on a hostile planet can also be read allegorically as an archetypal spiritual journey into the unknown, where a human being is rescued not only through his own efforts but at substantial costs to others.

The Martian can be regarded as hard science fiction with no speculative or fantasy component. Unlike many authors, Andy Weir did not elect to invent fictional technological advances to explain how travel to Mars was possible. Instead, he relied on established scientific facts for everything from distance related communication delays to the behavior of liquid crystal displays in a very thin atmosphere. The book does not assume an extensive scientific knowledge, but contains extensive information on subjects varying from physics to nutrition. Mark Watney, a botanist and mechanical engineer, makes extensive use of his knowledge in order to grow food to survive and to repair and customize the equipment he uses. There is also emphasis on the psychology and sociology of human beings in isolation, and historically accurate information about actual NASA missions such as the Pathfinder probe.

While describing the various political, public relations, and scientific activities necessary on Earth to get Mark Watney home, Andy Weir indulges in a small amount of social commentary. The political realities facing the Chinese engineers who built the rocket that allowed the Hermes to be resupplied during the rescue mission, and the interpersonal conflicts between some of the ground based team members are extremely realistic. Although nobody directly mentions a form of autistic spectrum disorder once described as Asperger’s Syndrome, several of the engineers and scientists display traits associated with it.

Although the novel is written primarily from an American perspective, the cast of characters is very diverse. Zhu Tao and Guo Ming are explicitly described as Chinese, the astronaut Beck is described as German, Martinez is described as being Hispanic, and Venkat Kapoor, who mentions that he is Hindu, is most likely of Indian descent. Other characters have ethnicities suggested by their names. The astronauts Johanssen and Lewis have last names that suggest Swedish and African-American ethnicity, respectively, and the NASA administrator Bruce Ng has a last name commonly regarded as Vietnamese.

The episodic structure of the novel allows the author to compress time in order to keep the pace of the story constant. The events of the story cover 543 days, nearly two years, however some of the episodes are presented out of order. The descriptions of the causes behind various mechanical failures that occur in an airlock, a bolt, and some of the other components often require information from the distant past to be presented retrospectively.

The overwhelming message of the novel is positive. Although some characters are presented in an unflattering way and there are moments where characters are in danger, the story is ultimately one about human ingenuity and survival.

This was Andy Weir’s first novel, which he initially released as a self-published eBook. It was sold online by the author without going through a publishing house. This is extremely rare. Although hundreds of thousands of eBooks are released each year, very few are commercially successful and fewer still sell enough copies for mainstream publishers to take an interest. But when The Martian was released in book form in 2014, it became a New York Times bestseller and was also released as a movie.

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