A storm just whipped up on a planet far enough from home it’s taken you months just to arrive. In those moments on the red planet, your captain declares the winds unsafe and orders evacuation, but an errant communication tower spears you through. Out of reach for rescue, assumed to be dying, you are abandoned with no hope of rescue, and no plan for sustainability, alone on Mars. What word comes to mind?
The opening line of Andy Weir’s The Martian sums up, in four words of spicy vernacular, not only the life and death stakes for survival, but the fan-winning wit of Weir’s protagonist, Mark Watney. As a novel that began its life self-published on the author’s blog site, and went on to win a 6-figure publishing contract, a Hugo award for the author, and 7 Oscar nominations for the film, The Martian was a lively choice for the third Breakout Novelist Book Dissection for 2017.
As readers may know from prior posts by John Kelley (Dissecting The Goldfinch) and Natalie Hart (Dissecting A Man Called Ove), WU hosts a Breakout Novelist Book Dissection group which meets four times a year to closely examine what led certain novels to become breakout successes. Discussions take place over 7 days, guided by questions derived from Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel.
The Martian as a breakout example
Members of the Breakout Novel Dissection group nominate the books we dissect, based on a few criteria – primarily that the book be “a true breakout,” not one whose success depended on the author’s prior success, and which broke out beyond the normal expectations of its genre.
It’s hard to find a more compelling breakout story than The Martian. When Weir’s novel sold film and publication rights in 2013, he said he had given up any such expectation. In fact, the novel first ‘broke out’ on his own website. Having been unsuccessful in finding an agent, he began posting the novel as a series on his blog in 2011. Interest for a publication contract appeared after he sold 35,000 copies of a Kindle edition in just a few months. Beyond expectations, indeed.
And it’s also a compelling example for being science fiction that broke outside its borders of expected readership. In prior dissections, we’ve discussed genre transcendency as an aspect of breakout fiction. For example, we saw how Station Eleven wove literary fiction with science fiction for breakout effect.
But The Martian… is hard science. Real, dense facts. There’s actual math in there. Weir is the son of a particle physicist; he studied orbital mechanics and space flight. Actual scientists have given thumbs-up to the engineering, environment, trajectories, and equipment Weir imagined for his Mars mission.
How did hard science fiction break out to such mass market appeal? For those who haven’t followed or participated in a breakout dissection before, this is exactly the question we are asking: Why this book? What did the author do to create such a breakout success?
Heads up: If you haven’t read the novel, know that SPOILERS MAY BE PRESENT in shared excerpts from our dissection.
High Stakes: What is the value of a human life? [Read more…]