Robinson Crusoe is not a novel that I think leaves a wholly pleasant aftertaste in the western cannon. I don’t mean to suggest that the book is badly written or historically unimportant, merely that it embraces various European fantasies and realities (slavery, white triumph over brute natives, deeply ingrained classism/racism, etc.) that most moderns tend to view as, well, a little barbaric. But that novel, like all those in the castaway genre (or what might be better termed pulp-survival) also embraces a can-do spirit and the promise that through determination, intelligence, and a bit of luck, one can do more than survive: one can triumph over adversity and come out stronger and wiser on the other side.
In his book The Martian, author Andy Weir has put together up an excellent survival novel for the modern age. In the not-to-distant future during humanity’s third mission to Mars, an unexpected wind storm forces the crew to return home. Mark Watney, the mission’s botanist and engineer, is left behind as the rest of his crew makes their escape. This isn’t really anyone’s fault, simply the grim logic of survival that forces them to engage their return module for its one-way trip into space lest they all become trapped. Mark needs to survive for 1412 days in one of the driest, most inhospitable deserts in the solar system. And of course, he has no way of calling home.
The Martian is genuinely riveting. Mark Watney is a clever, resourceful, and entertaining figure; a great guy to be trapped on Mars with. He’s witty and wicked smart. From the meager supplies and equipment left to him, he manages to build a farming infrastructure, manufacture his own water, and even get a functioning RV cobbled together out of old rovers and solar panels. Mars becomes his home, and he even learns to revel in is numerous firsts: “Everywhere I go,” he says, “I’m the first. Step outside the rover? First guy ever to be there! Climb a hill? First guy to climb that hill! Kick a rock? That rock hadn’t been moved in a million years!”
And it really is Watney’s humor in the face of constant threat and crushing isolation that makes this novel work. He takes it in stride that his death is almost certain, and the success of his mind-bindingly complex designs to ensure his survival surprise him almost as much as they do the reader. He is a highly pragmatic genius if nothing else. But, unlike other figures in other survival novels, Mark never feels superhuman. He agonizes of his back pain, struggles with the irritation of living so much of his life in an EVA suit, and is really disappointed in the artistic tastes of his fellow astronauts (“Disco. God damn it, Lewis”). Watney isn’t simply saved by his training, he is saved by his almost child-like glee in solving the problems he faces, and dealing with bigger challenges when they come. He knows all the science and can run the numbers easily enough. And more than once, a section begins with the words, “Well, I didn’t die.”
But the novel occasionally pans back to earth or to the surviving crew. While the other characters are pretty stock (most one-sentence summaries of characters rather than anything particularly fleshed out: a steely-eyed, no-nonsense woman navy captain; a steely-eyed, no-nonsense, statuesque blonde administrator; the German scientist who should have been named Fritz; a couple of NASA administrators that could have been lifted straight out of Apollo 13), these scenes reinforce how isolated Mark really is. The discussions they have about rescue options really help to reinforce the precariousness of his situation and the enormous distances that space travel deals with. But this other side to the story is a pleasant fantasy of humanity pulling together around one of their own and rallying to pull of his rescue. It’s a nice way of giving a shout-out to the rest of the species. Because the truth is that Mark, no matter how clever he is, is not getting home unless the people of Earth can get to him.