Andy Weir's The Martian
In 1870, French author Jules Verne published 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the story of the mysterious Captain Nemo and his crew who pilot a technologically amazing submarine named the Nautilus to the farthest reaches of the ocean. The novel is narrated by French marine biologist Professor Pierre Aronnax, who, along with two companions, is saved from drowning by Captain Nemo and then accompanies him on his fantastic journeys throughout the rest of the novel.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is often described as one of the first works of science fiction. Verne’s novel is filled with technological wonders as well as with speculation about where that technology could lead. From the very first chapter, the story makes it clear that this is a tale that hangs on the border between fact and fantasy. As Aronnax describes the general reaction to sightings of the Nautilus (thought to be a giant sea creature), he writes, “seeing that the human mind is always hankering after something to marvel at, the stir created throughout the world by this supernatural apparition will be well understood. As for relegating it to the realm of fable, that was out of the question” (2). In two sentences, Verne both describes the Nautilus as supernatural and dismisses the possibility that it is fable, an apt description of works of science fiction, which exist on the border between the possible and the impossible.
This reading of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as science fiction is further supported by later authors of science fiction who point to Verne’s novel as a key influence on them. Nemo appears directly in works such as Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentleman; the novel is alluded to in films like The Neverending Story and Back to the Future Part III; and authors like H. G. Wells were inspired by Verne’s work in creating their own speculations about technology and humanity. In his preface to Seven Famous Novels (a collection of his classic works), Wells writes, “In The First Men in the Moon I tried an improvement on Jules Verne’s shot, in order to look at mankind from a distance.” As these examples show, the imaginative ideas and attitude toward technology found in Verne’s work helped to lay the foundation for the development of science fiction as a genre.
And now, there is yet another novel that is indebted to Verne’s work: Andy Weir’s self‑published 2011 novel The Martian. Weir’s novel (which will be released as a movie in October 2015) tells the story of Mark Watney, an American astronaut who accidentally gets left on Mars by the rest of his team and has to push the limits of his creativity, using whatever resources he has in order to survive. (Note: spoilers about the novel follow.)
Watney is part of the third manned mission to Mars; his expertise is in botany which would be useful in conducting experiments on growing plants in zero-gravity and on the surface of Mars. Six days into the mission, a dust storm threatens to tip over the ascent vehicle that would return the crew to their ship, Hermes. The team decides to depart from the surface before that can happen, and in the chaos of getting to the ascent vehicle Watney falls over and is knocked unconscious. In the fall, the biometric computer on his spacesuit is destroyed, making it appear as if he were dead, and so the rest of the crew makes the agonizing decision to leave his body behind, rather than risk all of their lives going back into the storm for him. Watney is then forced to rely on a temporary inflatable habitat (nicknamed “the Hab”) to keep him alive as he works to stretch his resources, find a way to communicate with Earth, and ultimately, survive long enough to find a way home.
In terms of simple storytelling, there are some very basic similarities between Weir’s novel and Verne’s classic tale. Both novels are works that speculate about the possibility of traveling to unexplored places using technology that is only on the verge of being viable. As Stephen Baxter notes in his introduction to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, submarine technology was very new at the end of the nineteenth century; several experimental craft had been created, including one by the Confederacy during the American Civil War, but submarines were by no means common. Similarly, the ion engines used to power Hermes, the ship used to take Watney and his crew to Mars in The Martian, are a technology that does exist, but so far have been used by NASA only with unmanned spacecraft such as Deep Space 1 and Dawn, both of which explored small objects such as asteroids, comets, and protoplanets.
Weir and Verne show similar attention to detail throughout their novels as well. So much of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea simply catalogues the undersea wonders that Aronnax observes, including lists of aquatic plants, types of whales, and shellfish. The description of the Nautilus is conducted with similar precision, both in terms of the physical dimensions of the ship as well as how quickly it can travel through the water. Readers learn that the Nautilus is seventy meters in length, with a first hull that weighs 294.96 metric tons and a second hull that weighs 62 metric tons (90–91). We learn where its parts were made, how it is powered, and what kind of pressure it can withstand. Together, these details provide a very comprehensive picture of the entire undersea adventure.
While Weir does not provide lists of Martian flora and fauna in his novel the way Verne does (obviously), he still provides meticulous technical details to support the plausibility of his tale. Near the end of Watney’s journal entry for Sol 14 for instance, he works through calculations for how much soil he will need to grow the potatoes that will keep him alive. He notes that the “total floor space of the Hab is about 92 square meters… It’ll be a lot of work, but I’m going to need to cover the entire floor to a depth of 10 centimeters. That means I’ll have to transport 9.2 cubic meters of Martian soil into the Hab.” This inclusion of figures and mathematical calculations throughout the narrative functions very similarly to the details in Verne’s novel; it suggests to the reader that this adventure could actually have taken place.
But perhaps the most intriguing similarity between these two works is the parallel between the central figures of each novel, Commander Nemo and Mark Watney, respectively. Captain Nemo’s name means “nobody” or “no man” in Latin, as Aronnax’s servant Conseil points out in Chapter 20. Throughout the novel, Aronnax continues to emphasize how mysterious Nemo is: “Would I ever know the nationality of this strange man who boasted that he belonged to no nation? Who or what had provoked his hatred against humanity?... Was he one of those frustrated scientists—one of those geniuses whose work had been spurned…?” (99). These questions persist until the very end of the novel. After Aronnax escapes the maelstrom into which Nemo sends his vessel, he is left with questions, not just what happened to the Nautilus and Captain Nemo, but even after the thousands of miles traveled, simply who Captain Nemo truly was. A later work by Verne, entitled The Mysterious Island, provides more information about who Nemo is, but the lasting legacy of Nemo is as the enigma at the center of an amazing undersea voyage.
Mark Watney is similarly enigmatic. Although we do know his real name, we learn surprisingly little about him over the course of the novel. This is most apparent in what we learn about the personal items brought along by the crew. Every crew member who was part of Watney’s Mars mission brought with them from Earth a personal data drive containing reading material, music, movies, and the like. In many ways, these data drives serve as metonyms—as stand-ins—for the absent crew members. As Watney looks on each of his colleagues’ data drives in search of material to stave off boredom, we learn bits about them. Commander Lewis brought disco music and 1970s television shows like Three’s Company, Johanssen brought mystery novels and Beatles’ albums, and Beck brought medical journals. Even Martinez, who didn’t bring a data drive, brought pictures of his children and a crucifix. But we never learn anything about what Watney himself brought. His own personal data drive is conspicuously absent.
As a result, even though we gather token bits of information about Watney, including that he is from Chicago and he majored in botany, in many ways he remains as much of a mystery as Nemo does. We learn that he has parents, but who doesn’t? Other crew members talk about their families in greater detail, mentioning spouses and even children. With Watney, we don’t know anything; even at the end of the novel, we only see Watney reuniting with the crew of Hermes. There is no joyful reunion with his family and friends back on Earth. Like his data drive, the specifics of Watney’s personal life are simply not there.
And yet, in spite of both men being enigmas, our interpretation of this mystery is strongly affected by the different narrative perspectives of the two novels. Both novels are narrated in the first person, but it is Professor Aronnax who narrates 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, not Captain Nemo, while Watney is the narrator of his own tale. Because we are reading Watney’s journal, his thoughts are literally an open book. And the thoughts he conveys have personality. He uses parenthetical asides and questions to his imagined reader to imbue his journal with a sense of sarcasm and humor. As a result, Watney begins to feel familiar to the reader of The Martian; we learn his voice, his fears, his dreams. Even though the title of Weir’s novel—The Martian—associates Watney with the otherness of “little green men,” the truth is that the first-person narration of the novel aligns the reader with Watney, while Nemo remains an inscrutable cipher.
This difference in narrative perspective ultimately has a significant impact on the overall impression each novel creates about humanity as a whole. In Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the tale of Captain Nemo is about someone who has “broken with humanity” (67), someone who is positioned in opposition to the reader and the rest of the world. It is a novel about a world in which groups of people strive against each other, a world where the strong oppress the weak. Nemo makes this clear time and time again in his rejection of inhabited land: “I am the oppressed, and there is the oppressor!” (408). Nemo’s alienation emphasizes the consequences of inequality and social injustice, but the mystery surrounding his character also makes it much more difficult to empathize with him, thus reinforcing the great divide between us and him.
In The Martian, because the first-person narration aligns the reader with Watney, Weir’s novel sends a much different message about humanity. The lack of personal information about Watney becomes not a mystery that divides, but a place in the narrative into which we as readers can insert ourselves, bringing us closer to the struggles of the central character, rather than pushing us further away. As a result, Watney’s words of unity at the end of the novel are words in which we see ourselves. When he asks why everyone worked so hard to rescue him, he speculates that it is because of what he stands for: “progress, science, and the interplanetary future we’ve dreamed of for centuries.” Then he continues, “But really, they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out.” These are words that the reader can feel a part of, not only because Watney uses the word “we,” but because our reading of the novel makes us active participants in his rescue, part of a larger endeavor of all humanity.
While there is no denying that Verne’s novel remains a classic work of science fiction, maybe it is Weir’s view of humanity that is even more needed today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Works of science fiction like The Martian remind us of what brings us together, showing us how we as a species can work together to fix problems, be they technological or social, ever pushing past the limits of what seems impossible to what lies beyond.
Jennifer Miller teaches English at Normandale Community College in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Verne, Jules. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Introduction by Stephen Baxter. New York, Signet: 2010.
Weir, Andy. The Martian. New York: Broadway Books, 2014.