R. C. Bray, Reader
At this late date, what with the mega-publicity this book has enjoyed, it would be foolish of us to give the facts of the novel. We will note that the story line enjoys a great tradition, going all the way back to The Odyssey, up through and beyond Pilgrim's Progress, making a stop over in Gulliver's Travels, and gaining the closest correspondence of them all in Robinson Crusoe.
Like Mark Watney, the hero of the latter is forced to improvise with tools, many of which were not designed for whatever use he found them. The difference is that Watney started out to be a traveller, and was supplied --- courtesy of NASA --- with a variety of tools that make it possible to save his life, for if he did nothing, he would be toast.
And time? It's the great enforcer, to those who are deeply involved in fighting (for or against) it. Here it shows itself in Log Entry with a Sol number, irrestibly pacing itself against the time when he will run out of food, or air, or water before he can be rescued.
The tension is threefold: will he be able to make do with the tools he has? Will he survive until his rescue? And will random explosions and mischances upset all his plans, to finally leave him lifeless on a lifeless planet?
We received these discs some time before The Martian became such a hit, and were thus able to judge it without all the subsequent static. In the recorded version, the voice of R. C. Bray starts out as flat narrative, in flat American English, which is as it should be, because Watney is a product not only of the American midwest, but of the federal government scientific machinery, and all that implies: you have been chosen for a special mission; you are part of the military; you will follow your orders without question; you will not cast a bad light on your fellow astronauts, nor on NASA, nor on your government. You are to live up to the highest standards as befits one specially chosen for his abilities and training, and you will acquit yourself with clarity, discipline, and the ultimate cool. No deviation is necessary nor appreciated. Do your job!
The flat reading that begins on disc one eventually becomes the angst-driven (although calm) recitation of a man who is smart and learned, knows his technology (he is doubly trained, as a botanist and as an engineer) and as we become more and more immersed in his story, the recitation comes to consume us, becomes as good as it should be, as good as we could ask.
Indeed, I claim that the adventure is best presented not in print, not as movie, but as soliloquy, to be or not to be. The pacing and the flow are nigh about perfect . . . and here are perfectly presented.
Whenever there is a disaster --- the explosion and deflation of the Hab, the toppling of the rover --- the reading reflects a cool astronaut: a man who may have set-backs, but with that American assertion (backed by the richest research organization in the world) makes us believe that the outcome will be as it should be.
There are moments of rebellion --- being given directions on how to survive when the directions come from 225 million kilometers away, and mostly about stuff Watney has already figured out; the real rebellion rests with his six fellow astronauts who vote to overrule NASA, vote to go back and rescue him. All these add an extra edge to the telling.
And even though we are convinced that our hero is going to survive --- would any writer worth his salt murder such a sterling character? --- he still comes across to us as heroic, in the midst of this-planet-might-kill-me routine, even and especially as the odds are stacked against him.
In all, it is the details that egg one on. How in hell is he going to survive if he is running out of water / oxygen / food? All his food is prepackaged, but it's not enough. O yes --- NASA thoughtfully planned for a Thanksgiving dinner. There can be no such meal without potatoes. Potatoes have eyes, which are tiny potatoes just sitting there, waiting to be planted. But then how about earth to plant them in? How about, ork, his bodily leavings. Thus those two human proposition (one must have a potato with your potted turkey; I will provide the soil for my garden) become his salvation.
Or, when the airlock blows, we think he is a goner, because there's a minuscule leak. He's on a planet with no atmosphere. If the leak is not found, he will not be able to breathe. He has to find something he can set on fire to create smoke so he can discover where the leak is.
But everything that NASA has put on Mars is nonflammable. With one exception. Right: Watney. His hair.
And, oh, yes --- he needs a spark to set his hair on fire. "Anyone who's played with a balloon knows it's great at building up a static charge." Result, there at SOL 119, "I'm in a box full of burning-hair smell. It's not a good smell." But, then,
I watched as the little wisp of smoke drifted toward the floor of the airlock, disappearing through a hairline fracture.
I have you now, little leak!
The Martian is a wonderful study in applied physics and botany, and, overall, an even more wonderful study of survivability. It's an acute study of pure logic and training mixed with logic jumps that become, after awhile, the survival of all of us. We refuse, like Watney, to surrender --- and are rewarded (the whole world is watching!) with the survival of one who becomes all of us.
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I would suggest that the best of all --- book, movie or narrative --- this last beats them all. It is the one I first came across, so I am prejudiced. I was loath to shut off the disc with its cliff-hanging chapters (how do you survive on a planet with no other people within thousands and thousands of kilometers?) During the interregnums, I was to be able to suspend my disbelief, wait for another drive to work (or back to home) where I could continue with Watney in our noble, heroic, problem-solving isolation time together, there on a dead red planet. And I was certainly not content until I could be sure of our survival.
Which was, after all, pure. No distractions: love, hate, competition, backbiting, human conflict, jealousy.
Just that one clear one: a man, caught in pure efforts of animal survival. Alone, on another world.--- Pamela Wylie