* This article contains major spoilers for The Martian.
The Martian, written by Andy Weir, is a fantastic piece of fiction.
It’s well-researched, witty, and – most importantly – entertaining.
But it’s more than that. The Martian is a Humanist story
Weir’s novel is a celebration of human ingenuity. It’s a sincerely touching endorsement of what we can achieve as a species, when we aren’t fighting each other.
So, why is The Martian a Humanist novel?
…a commitment to the perspective, interests and centrality of human persons; a belief in reason and autonomy as foundational aspects of human existence; a belief that reason, scepticism and the scientific method are the only appropriate instruments for discovering truth and structuring the human community; a belief that the foundations for ethics and society are to be found in autonomy and moral equality…”
– Humanism defined by the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Laughing in the Face of Mortality
In brief, Mark Watney – a NASA astronaut – is stranded on Mars following an accident. Presumed dead, his team have no choice but to leave him behind.
With the next Mars mission four years away, no means of contacting anybody, and only a few weeks worth of supplies, Watney’s situation is grim. “So yeah, I’m screwed,” he tells the reader.
Watney’s not wrong. Mars is not designed for human habitation. As situations go, this is probably one of the worst things that could possibly happen to a human being.
And yet his plight is undercut by a dark, rather self-deprecating sense of humour.
There’s a self-awareness to Watney’s attitude. He knows his chances of survival are low but in some ways, humour functions as a coping mechanism. It’s Watney’s way of assessing the landscape, grounding his current situation, and figuring out exactly how he’ll survive.
It’s Watney’s way of rebelling against his precarious situation.
Optimism Against the Odds
Watney is an eternal optimist, with a seemingly unwavering faith in himself.
The novel is told through ‘SOL entries’ (days) by Watney, so the only time we get an insight into his state of mind is if he chooses to log an entry.
For NASA and the reader, it’s telling when Watney’s state of mind breaks down. Often, he’ll go multiple SOLs without checking in. For the reader, nothing really changes. For Watney, that’s 3 or 4 SOLs alone with this thoughts.
Whilst Watney is mostly jokey, this often feels like a performance, both for his sake and the reader of his logs. He’s clearly suffering. Because of course he is – the most likely outcome is that Watney will die on Mars.
And yet optimism in spite of remote odds is a theme coursing through The Martian.
Watney’s trip to the Ares IV MAV is almost a suicide mission. But whether it’s his survival skills, sheer determination, or simply his infectious optimism – both Watney and the reader know that he’ll make it. One way or another.
Man vs Mars – Being and Nothingness
There is a clear absence of the supernatural within this novel.
It’s science fiction, with the emphasis firmly on science.
Weir could easily have introduced some sort of ‘space monster’ in order to create tension and entertainment. Perhaps Watney could be assailed in the night, or whilst repairing the Hab.
But here’s the thing – The Martian doesn’t need this.
The Martian is a tale of mankind facing the great unknown. It pits man against nothingness and the void of space, forcing a confrontation between mankind’s knowledge and absence of knowledge.
Nasa ‘fact-checks’ The Martian
There’s a power in the simple vacuum of space. An absolute nothingness. And told through 1st person by Watney, the reader feels that alienation.
Life is the prize of success, death is the consequence of failure.
Weir places a strong emphasis on human agency. It’s a combination of Watney’s resilience and his crew’s skills that culminates in his rescue from Mars.
This is part of the reason that The Martian is a Humanist tale.
Humanism Over Geopolitics
I think what I appreciate about this novel is the characters’ willingness to do anything, in spite of cost and risk, to save one human life.
When the Hermes crew realise there’s a chance they could save Watney, Commander Lewis holds a vote on whether they should return to Mars – at great risk to their own lives – or continue their course home.
They vote, unanimously, to mount the ‘Rich Purnell’ rescue mission – against NASA’s orders – because it’s the ‘moral’ thing to do.
Back on Earth, people of all nations are invested in Watney’s rescue.
There’s a unity – a ‘he’s one of us’ mentality. And this unity extends beyond national borders.
When NASA’s rescue mission explodes 51 seconds after launch and all seems lost, the Chinese Space Agency lends their support.
After all, there’s a common purpose in this. To preserve human life and expand mankind’s knowledge of the cosmos. Both the US and China want the same thing.
With this in mind, it’s rather sombre reading The Martian in the current political climate, given how divided our world is. Cooperation between the US and China to do anything positive together seems increasingly unlikely.
But this is the greatness of The Martian – it’s fiction, but it’s entrenched in optimistic plausibility. Weir’s novel transcends political boundaries and demonstrates what we can do as a species – as human beings – if we band together in the pursuit of a common principle.
Naive? I don’t think so. I prefer idealistic.
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