A popular new book out now is The Martian by Andy Weir, his first novel, about an astronaut Mark Watney stranded on Mars after his fellow crewmen think he’s dead and they have to leave quickly to save their own lives. Watney is part of the Ares 3 mission, and his story is very much like last year’s film, Gravity, where a solo astronaut must use his scientific wits to stay alive for hundreds of days in an environment that relentlessly keeps trying to kill him. Watney is like a modern day Robinson Crusoe. The Martian is a bit of a publishing sensation because it started out as a free ebook at the author’s web site, later became a 99 cent Kindle ebook, then a New York Times bestseller published by Crown, and finally is being promised to be made into a major motion picture. The story is as good as the book’s success.
I raced through The Martian because it was a riveting read despite the fact that it’s very technical. If you’ve ever dreamed of being an astronaut on a mission to Mars, then this book is for you.
Watney thinks of himself as a Martian, because he’s the only living being on Mars. When I was a kid I used to pretend I was a Martian. Back in the 1950s, flying saucers were a big thing with the nutty folk, and when I heard that some flying saucer conspiracy crazies thought the U.S. Air Force kept secrets about UFO’s at Wright-Patterson AFB, where I was born in 1951, I imagined that I was secretly a Martian raised by my human parents who didn’t know their real kid had been swapped by Air Force brass. If was a fun fantasy to explain why I was so different from my mother, father and sister.
I don’t know when I first heard about Mars, but it seems like it’s always been something I knew about, like dinosaurs. I’m sure Mars was programmed in my brain before I could even talk, by Saturday morning cartoons and Saturday afternoon science fiction movies. By the late 1950s when I started reading books for fun, I immediately searched out books on Mars, both fiction and nonfiction. Before the summer of 1965 I had read enough books on Mars to have endless fantasies about ancient dead cities and the exotic aliens that had built the canals.
I had read many books about Mars, but the one that really hooked me on science fiction was Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein, the first Heinlein book I ever read, back in 1964. I was twelve when I read that book, the legendary Golden Age of Science Fiction. By the time I turned 13 that same year, on November 25th, I had read every Heinlein book I could find.
It was a crushing blow by mid-July 1965 when the Mariner 4 spacecraft flew by Mars and took a handful of grainy black and white photos that invalidated all my science fictional dreams. Mars was as dead as the Moon, and the beautiful canals were replaced by goddamn craters. Heinlein’s speculative fiction about Mars was now just fantasy novels like the Oz books. No more old ones, no more Willis, and no more Barsoom.
By high school, and the Moon landing in July of 1969, I knew Mars was cold and inhospitable, but for some strange reason I still wanted to go there. I still wanted to be a Martian. I was so excited by Viking 1 and 2 landing on Mars in 1976, that I continued to dream that I might get to Mars someway, even though I was much too old to believe such bullshit. Over the years NASA landed many spacecraft on Mars, each filling out the real details of the planet that so mesmerized me as a child. Mars is very well explored. It’s not a very nice place for humans. It’s very cold, with plenty of radiation, and no real air to breathe.
After the Apollo program in the 1970s I just assumed NASA would land men and women on Mars in my lifetime. Boy was I wrong. In 1996 Robert Zubrin came out with The Case for Mars that made a whole lot of sense about how to get to Mars. His ideas are the basis of the Ares missions in The Martian. I thought for sure such a brilliant, logical plan would lead to real missions. But nothing has ever come of Zubrin’s dreams either. The Mars Society is ever hopeful, but I don’t believe manned missions to Mars will happen before I die.
I no longer want to be a Martian. That’s my main criticism of Andy Weir’s book—even though it’s a very realistic book, it never describes how harsh the Martian environment is, and how unpleasant it would be to try to live there. Weir doesn’t convey the brutal cold or the relentless radiation, or the insidious regolith. Only a mad geologist could love Mars. The real Mars has no romance. It’s definitely not an exotic destination of fictional adventure. It’s a dead world, a world of rocks and more rocks.
I even wonder why astronauts would want to go there, or why thousands would sign up to be one-way colonists.
That’s the trouble with the romance of space travel, and the dreams of science fiction. Every place were we could land that’s not Earth is just rocks. Rocks and radiation, and freeze-in-an instant cold, or melt-the-flesh hot. I guess I’ve just gotten old. Old guys don’t like cold.
I used to be a Martian. I used to be a Martian when we knew nothing about Mars. The older I get the more I realized that Earth is the only place that humans can live. And dang if we aren’t hell bent on turning Earth into Venus.
JWH – 6/10/14