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Dissecting THE MARTIAN

an image of an open book with a fountain pen balanced on top
Photo [1] by Max Pixel, CC0 [2]

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 [3]) and Natalie Hart (Dissecting A Man Called Ove [4]), 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?

In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass suggests that “deep personal stakes dig down so far that they show us who we are.” He says, “High stakes start with high human worth.” That concept of human worth is at the heart of Weir’s Martian.

Dissectors readily agreed that this book was all about high stakes. In the opening four words and ensuing paragraphs, we learn that Mark Watney was abandoned on Mars when his crew members had no choice but to leave him in the face of a sudden storm, believing an accident had left him dead. With no way home, no communication with Earth, limited resources, and no immediate chance for rescue, the main character – in his audacious vernacular – declares he expects he’ll die.

You can’t open with much higher stakes than awareness of imminent death.

While Watney accepts that death is inevitable, he begins working the science, continually ratcheting up the stakes with each success or failure. Dissection discussions revealed the ways Watney’s success in sustaining his life, with the prospect of actual survival, raised the stakes with continually ratcheting tension. Each experiment has the potential to extend his life long enough that there is the possibility of rescue, or to fatally end his options. One of the more endearing themes that dissectors felt led to breakout effect was Watney’s persisting hope.

Dissector Priya Gill observed: “[Vitality] is almost the theme. Watney was not just content to stay alive as long as he could, but was focused on furthering science and finding a way back home. That to me was so endearing.”

When Watney restores communication with Earth and his NASA peers find out he alive, stakes take a turn. Our dissection discussion began to hinge on Maass’s point about human worth. Dissectors reflected on Weir’s choice to switch pov, at the point. Dissectors agreed that the added point of view created a layered complexity to what could have been a more plain survival story. Instead, Weir reveals the actions, thoughts and debate of those on Earth.

Dissection members discussed how each character’s viewpoint added layers of tension to the newly inserted moral dilemma. If NASA could go save Watney, should they? Both the theme and rising action become dependent on the underlying question for a mission in space: is one man’s life worth risking the lives of others? It was clear that insertion of this higher-stakes theme, questioning the value of one life, elevated the overall breakout effect.

Setting: No big deal… It’s just set on Mars

Every novelist brings certain strengths, and one of author Weir’s is the depth to which he researched and plotted the actual science of Mark Watney’s mission on Mars. Maass’s advice for breakout settings speaks to the authenticity and immersion that comes from richly detailed setting – Weir brings his A game with this in The Martian.

For all you kids who sat bleary eyed through science or math classes in school, Weir blows most readers away with his ability to accurately depict the Hab, the environment, available resources, ability to transform technology for new purposes, etc., for surviving on Mars. It’s tempting to think that might lose some readers, but Weir has managed to hook both non-science fiction readers as well as those who are well-versed in real science and expectations within the hard science genre. Dissectors suggested that Weir’s adept voice kept readers turning pages.

Among our dissectors, we had a handful who read or write science fiction, or work in scientific fields. And we had those who prefaced comments, “I don’t usually read science fiction…” Dissectors shared insights to understand how a writer can go that deep into such specific processes, and how readers — even those without an innate interest in the technicalities — come to trust the writer, believing in the story’s authenticity. This is one of the enriching experiences as we read a range of genre — we learn so much from each other’s perspectives.

Natalie Hart observed: “Weir did this in spades. Everything about the setting (at least in Mars) was highly specific, from the atmosphere of Mars to the Hab to the vehicles, and it all required struggle and continual negotiation to merely survive, so we were constantly faced with the various settings. And how we experienced it was highly specific, through Watney’s descriptions of how he’s forced to change and adapt, and through Watney’s mostly can-do, fix-it personality. This was a major strength of this book.”

Christopher Blake said: “The author clearly did a lot of research on the climate and topography of Mars and it shows. Mark notes the precautions he must take to survive in the intemperate climate. The reader can experience this second hand through his description of the setting. The details of the setting lend an authenticity to the story.”

Priya Gill, one of our members with a background in science, shared: “Wier used the setting beautifully, as an antagonist and also as the only place in the universe where this story could realistically happen” based on “the distance between Earth and Mars, and the inhabitability and lack thereof… this story could not happen in Jupiter or Venus.”

A breakout characteristic is for setting to not only create a visual but to create textural layers building character, emotion, and plot tensions.

Priya continued: “I felt that the ‘personality’ of Mars suits the personality of Watney so well.” Of specific settings, including The Hab, the Ares 3 spacecraft, and scenes back at NASA headquarters, she added: “It is interesting that each setting has its own personality and culture and, as we read, it is evident at any time exactly where we are.”

In reviews, The Martian was sometimes billed as ‘a Robinson Crusoe story set on Mars.’ In that classic survival-story sense, our members dissected the ways that Weir used setting as a key element in building the novel’s page-turning suspense – notable as a source of its success.

Character & Voice: What we found most memorable… or lacking

We look for breakout characteristics of a character with a vivid inner journey (as well as their external conflict), textured with layers that build some larger-than-life quality. One of Weir’s challenges is that he has one man alone on a planet. How do you get him talking, to reveal insights or create tension?

As we discussed objects, symbols, and other aspects of setting, we observed the effectiveness of Weir’s framework, to have Watney narrating daily science log entries. These serve as windows into each “sol,” and suggest unspoken tension when there are gaps between sols. The sols reveal the rising action of Watney’s increasing strategies to first extend how many days he’ll survive, and then begin to envision the prospect of escape. The posts build continual microtension and suspense of his external conflict for survival.

Most of our readers found Watney’s endearing, deadpan and irreverent voice one of the novel’s strongest qualities. Weir wrote a character who you could hear speaking in your head. Often, he swore. But it’s Mars, he’s dying. You get that’s fair enough.

Weir often accomplishes the humor in contrasts: ending one log with a prediction of success (or failure), and the next log opens with the stark opposite. To keep his sanity, he seeks out the entertainment left behind by his teammates. His logs are then punctuated by reactions to scenes from their recordings of Three’s Company and disco music.

Once Watney makes contact with NASA back on Earth, we hear from a variety of players whose voices expose that high stakes theme as they debate whether it is feasible or ethically essential to return to Mars to rescue Watney.

Jocosa Wade observed how these voices create secondary or contradictory emotions, elevating the effect: “[Watney’s] use of humor and his optimism was in direct opposition to the people at NASA who were all ‘pressured up’ about saving Watney, their own asses, the space program etc. I think It was the juxtaposition of emotions between Watney and NASA that ratcheted up the tension of the book overall.”

For many of us, one of the greatest learning experiences during dissections is not just observing breakout elements that are present, but in wrestling with ones that seem missing. This held true with The Martian. As much as most members cited Watney’s endearing voice as a strength, many felt him lacking in the kind of inner conflict we so often find at the heart of breakout characters.

We get glimmers of his relationship with his mission team prior to being stranded. Rarely, he mentions a detail from earth. But we know very little about his personal backstory, or his motivation beyond science, the mission, or survival. This was an interesting discussion, as members wavered on whether they felt something was lacking, or if it was part of the novel’s overall effect.

For example, one could argue that subtle layers of Watney’s inner conflict are revealed by his deep desire to achieve and document continued scientific research, to further the mission, even when he assumes he will soon die.

In some cases, we discussed how a deep inner life is not inherent to some genre. Jan O’hara noted: “My tendency is to want more [characterization], as well,” but she cited experience with as a beta-reader for a friend who writes military thrillers. “I kept prompting him to add internal dialogue, etc., to his writing. They were the first passages his editor struck as being contrary to reader expectations, and resulting in a slower pace. In that sense, Weir did an excellent job, IMHO, of meeting his core readers’ expectations.”

Takeaway: we learn most from books that raise questions

Ending with that thought, it is interesting how often that participants comment after a Breakout Novel Dissection about how much they learned — and often, that they learned more when they disagreed with (or at least puzzled over) an author’s choice. Especially when novel selections might be from a genre one does not always read, we find ourselves challenged in ways that increase our insights as readers and deepen our thoughts about our own writing.

What are your thoughts? If you read The Martian, what elements of Weir’s work did you feel led to its standout success? Are you someone who ‘never reads science fiction’ but was drawn in to this one? For those who are avid readers (or writers) of science fiction, how did this compare to others works? Even if you didn’t read this novel, do some of our dissection observations resonate with your own works in progress? Please share your thoughts below, and see if we can gain further insights together.

Dissection group members have selected Carol Rifka Brunt’s debut novel, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, for our next discussion series, starting October 26th. If the Breakout Novel Dissection group interests you, we’d love to have you join us on Facebook [5]!

About Elissa Field [6]

Elissa Field [7] is a writer, freelance editor, and educator, who splits time between Connecticut and South Florida, with her two sons. She is currently teaching ancient world history at a school for the arts, while finishing a novel. She is a frequent advocate for diverse literature, and supportive of fellow writers.