Godspeed, Little Taters: Andy Weir’s The Martian

the_martian.93d47143244.originalI’m a sucker for what I like to call the Expedition Gone Terribly Awry narrative, which is similar to the Robinsonade but I actually hate Robinson Crusoe so I’m calling it something different. Also, the EGTA can involve multiple characters, instead of the Lone Hero, has decidedly less imperialism, and is not designed as a commentary on society. The EGTA is just about bad shit happening to explorers in remote places and their ensuing struggle to stay alive. Pretty much any account of Europeans engaging in polar expeditions fits the bill. And why am I so enthralled with this type of story? Probably I’m some kind of sadistic voyeur.

The Martian is actually my ideal Expedition Gone Terribly Awry narrative because it has all of the struggling to stay alive with none of the upsetting imperialism/colonialism. There are no native cultures for the explorer to destroy because it’s fucking Mars. Everyone wins.

When you get right down to it, The Martian is just a novel about a man farming and fixing farm equipment — except on Mars. It’s really about the minutiae of staving off death every day. The protagonist, Mark Watney, gets stuck alone on Mars and spends his time growing potatoes and tricking out rovers, and this is what you get to read about for hundreds of pages. Luckily for me, I find something immensely soothing about a catalogue of mundanity. It’s the literary equivalent of anti-anxiety meds. I probably have this serotoninful response to this particular style of writing because I grew up with Little House on the Prairie. (Watney at one point actually refers to his living quarters on Mars as his “Little Hab on the Prairie” which is adorable and very accurate.) It’s funny, because I am annoyed by lengthy descriptive writing of people and environments the only purpose of which is to “paint a picture.” I really don’t care about your picture; my visual imagination is shit anyway. But I can read several pages describing how Pa Ingalls cleans his gun and makes bullets and I’ll be riveted through the whole thing. Obviously this appeals to other people, otherwise the show How It’s Made wouldn’t exist.

Anyway, The Martian is chock full of this sort of How It’s Made writing, and it gets the Good Juices flowing in my brain. My eyes may skim over the exact figures, because they don’t matter to my non-mathematical mind, but I still enjoy following Watney’s thought process as he problem solves, makes calculations, describes the things he’s built and how they function. And Weir keeps it readable with well-timed injections of humour. When was the last time I read a book this funny? Maybe it was P. G. Wodehouse’s Cocktail Time. I don’t usually laugh, actually laugh, while reading (possibly because I’m often reading things like Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women and that’s not exactly big on the humour). Anyway, Mark Watney is hilarious, exactly the sort of guy you want to go out drinking with, so naturally you care about his survival. The universe cannot lose such a precious potato:

By my reckoning, I’m about 100 kilometers from Pathfinder. Technically it’s ‘Carl Sagan Memorial Station.’ But with all due respect to Carl, I can call it whatever the hell I want. I’m the King of Mars.

As with most of life’s problems, this one can be solved by a box of pure radiation.

Chemistry, being the sloppy bitch it is, ensures there’ll be some ammonia that doesn’t react with the hydrazine, so it’ll just stay ammonia. You like the smell of ammonia? Well, it’ll be prevalent in my increasingly hellish existence.

‘I admit it’s fatally dangerous,’ Watney said. ‘But consider this: I’d get to fly around like Iron Man.’

The Martian‘s not the most sophisticated novel I’ve ever read, but it is genuinely good story-telling. And even though the focus of the novel is the process of getting Watney back to earth, Weir still manages to create a diverse cast of characters. There are female characters with, gasp, a range of personalities, from the steely Commander Lewis, captain of the Hermes, to the long-suffering Mindy Park who complains about being “space paparazzi” when her sole responsibilities at NASA become examining satellite imagery of Mark Watney. Then there are characters of various ethnic and religious backgrounds. I am unsurprisingly fond of Martinez, the Hermes’s pilot and resident devout Catholic; he sneaks a wooden cross among his personal effects (the astronauts are really not supposed to have flammable material) which comes in handy when Watney needs to light something on fire. Jesus saves. One character, Rich Purnell, is even coded as autistic, which is nice. It’s nice to see such a plot-heavy novel still have such good characters, and Weir actually manages to make them all important to the story. They each have their own integral role to play in Saving Mark Watney’s Ass. What an optimistic view of humanity. Even being an Expedition Gone Terribly Awry narrative, The Martian manages to be one of the most cheerful books I’ve read in a long while.

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THIS IS YOUR MIND OFF MEDS: MR. ROBOT AND SUBJECTIVE STORY-TELLING

There’s something at turns frustrating and fascinating about an unreliable narrator. Elliot Alderson is much more the latter than the former, though; he doesn’t want to purposefully mislead us. Rather, his brain misleads him and we’re carried along for the disconcerting ride. I’ve seen Mr. Robot praised for its topicality, its technological accuracy, but I am more drawn to it as a vivid character study. “We’re all living in each other’s paranoia,” Elliot says in episode 8. As viewers we’re definitely forced to live in Elliot’s paranoia. Poor Elliot. Poor us.

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Living in Elliot’s paranoia makes it difficult to be objective and analytical, to pick apart the show for tropes and tricks, to guess what’s going to happen next. I can only really do this in hindsight. During episode 2 I was thinking “this is gonna be some Fight Club nonsense, isn’t it.” Then I simply stopped caring. By episode 4 I didn’t care if the Big Reveal was a predictable reworking of Fight Club; I was so in love with Rami Malek’s performance, so anxious for (and with) Elliot, that nothing else mattered. I was in deep. Episode 4 features an extended dream sequence that is only matched in excellence by the season 4 finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m serious. Both Mr. Robot and Buffy nail dream logic, particularly the defamiliarizing of familiar places. Both shows inject nightmares with the jarring humour of an absurdist play (in Buffy it is The Cheese Man, in Mr. Robot we have Elliot’s betta fish yelling at him). I was enjoying Mr. Robot before episode 4, but it was episode 4 that made me obsessed.

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So, though I wasn’t enthralled by the premise (awkward genius hacker instigates revolution, probably has a Tyler Durden thing going on), I was thrilled by the presentation of that narrative, which seemed exciting and unusual. But I was after all blindsided by the Big Reveal in episode 8, which is thankfully more than just “some Fight Club nonsense.” “Were you in on this the whole time?” Eliot yells at us. “Were you?” No, Elliot, I wasn’t. But I will be when I rewatch the season (and I will), noticing all those odd little moments that make sense now that I have a piece of the puzzle I lacked before. At that thought I feel weirdly guilty, as if I am betraying or abandoning Elliot. Silly, right? But it’s hard to be merely a spectator when watching Mr. Robot; Elliot speaks to us and calls us “friend” and though at first I wanted to find this cloying or ridiculous, the truth is that it is so well done that I became participatory in Elliot’s experiences. In a sense, I will lose that when I rewatch the show; I will become an analytic observer, rather than an immersed participant.

Of course, if I’m not immersed I won’t be emotionally fatigued by Elliot’s mental illness, his confusion and fear. And boy, let me tell you, it is an uncomfortably good portrayal of mental illness. Mr. Robot shows neuroses as I know them. “#me,” said I, the chronically depressed and anxious, when I watched Elliot ugly-crying in a corner. In public, Elliot is very quiet, but you can see him practically vibrating with anxiety, feel him screaming internally while trying to carry on normal conversations. Everything in the show from the soundtrack to the cinematography produces a steady uneasiness. Whether it was intended or not, the cinematography at the end of episode 1 is particularly evocative of anxiety-induced derealization. The crowd of besuited 1-percenters are an indistinct menace, painfully dragged into focus as if we are seeing through Elliot’s eyes as he struggles to connect to what’s going on around him. “Please tell me you’re seeing this too,” he begs, unable to trust his own perception. Of course, we can’t trust our own perception either.

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Despite being generally impressed with the portrayal of Elliot’s anxiety and depression, I found the split personality stuff in the season finale somewhat awkward and hackneyed (the show doesn’t completely escape that “Fight Club nonsense”). Though I would without hesitation recommend Mr. Robot to literally everyone, I know that it’s not without its flaws. Most prominent among these is the unfortunate fridging of a female character mid-season (dear writers, was that really necessary?). But, I mean, how could I stay mad for long with Rami Malek on screen? My criticisms die on my lips when I am confronted with those soulful eyes.