Fiction: “The Martian” by Andy Weir

MartianTwo Oscar!Watch titles down, two to go! (and then another six books after that, and guys, I am now imposing a deadline upon myself: I need to get caught up with this shit before my sister’s wedding. I do not have time for further dilly-dallying. I mean, good news, the TV season will end soon, and also, I’m currently reading Alexander Hamilton, and that is an 800-page beast. So hopefully, I’ll get caught up with my books by the time I have to drive down to D.C. to pick up a Very Important Photographer, because once I punch out of work on that Friday, there ain’t gonna be no Alaina-Time until June.)

I saw The Martian when it came out last October, and holy shit, you guys – if you haven’t seen the movie, you need to. It was my favorite movie of 2015 until I saw The Force Awakens, and look, if you want to send me off on a rant, then go ahead and get me started on how the fuck the fucking Revenant got nominated for Best Picture when The Force Awakens made me feel ALL THE FEELINGS and the fucking Revenant only made me feel fucking ANGRY.

Someday, when I have either more time or less of a life, I will create the Alaina Awards, in which I reward movies that truly deserve it. And first up for a Reparations Oscar (am I allowed to use that word? God, I hope so) is The Force Awakens.

(I mean, Spotlight was amazing and I’m still exceptionally happy that it did win Best Picture. But The Force Awakens! BB-8, YOU GUYS – BB-8 FOR BEST ACTOR)

Okay. So. Anyway. The Martian. I saw it, and lo, it was amazing. And then I read the book.

The story is about Mark Watney, the engineer-botanist astronaut in a team of astronauts who have been sent on a mission to study Mars. I shouldn’t have to point out that this is science-fiction, but I’m going to anyway. And I should also point out that it’s really fiction that’s heavily-steeped in science, as opposed to fantastical elements. The only Martian in the story is Watney.

Not too far into the astronaut’s mission on the planet’s surface, a dust-storm brews up, and they have to evacuate back to Earth prematurely. En route to the evacuation vehicle, Watney gets knocked off course by debris, and the crew are forced to leave him behind, believing him to have died on impact. They load up into the evacuation vehicle, link up with the shuttle, and depart for Earth.

Watney, however, wakes up the next day to his space suit beeping at him, warning him of his dangerously low oxygen levels. The debris that hit him was a bar of rebar (or something), and while the impact punctured his suit, the hole in the suit was also sealed enough by his blood and stuff to allow Watney to continue breathing while unconscious. He manages to crawl his way back to the Hab (the habitation quarters for the astronauts), suture his wound by himself, and then realize that he’s alive and alone on Mars.

Watney discovers that the storm knocked out all communication with Earth – the evac vehicle had a good amount of the communications devices, but the backup satellites were damaged and are unable to be repaired. So Watney has no way to tell NASA or his co-astronauts that he survived the storm.

So now, he’s truly on Mars. Alone.

But instead of committing suicide, he knows that the next mission to Mars is in approximately 500 sols (Mars-days, slightly longer than an Earth-day). He knows where he is, and he knows where the landing site is going to be, and he knows he can get there. But how can he spare his rations to live that long?

Remember when I said that Watney was a botanist? And conveniently, NASA sent up pre-packaged Thanksgiving dinners, complete with actual potatoes. Watney comes up with a plan to cover the Hab floor with makeshift soil so he can plant potatoes in the simulated Earth atmosphere. But what about water? Well …

Watney records his journey and travails in the Sol Log – astronauts record their doings and discoveries in a log, and even though this is now practically Mission: Watney, Watney continues the tradition. The majority of the book is Watney’s log entries, but there are chapters that return to Earth or the astronauts who are on their way back home.

About a third of the way into the book, an overnight observer at NASA realizes that one of the small rovers near the Hab has been moved since the evacuation. She keeps an eye on it, and sure enough, it moves a bit every day. She brings this information to her supervisor, and that’s when they realize that Watney’s still alive – this after the head of NASA had announced his tragic death.

But because there’s limited communication, NASA doesn’t know how Watney’s doing, or even what he’s doing. Conversely, Watney doesn’t know that NASA figured out he’s alive. But Watney, like a lot of us human beings, has an intense drive to survive. So dammit, that’s what he’s going to do.

His first step after figuring out how to grow potatoes in Martian soil is to retrofit one of the rovers for a longer journey. He then takes that rover and travels about twenty sols (because rovers really don’t move that fast) and rescues the Mars Pathfinder rover. When the NASA scientists realize what he’s doing, they contact their top tech guys at Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL) to get the MS-DOS stored on Pathfinder to work again, and this gives them communication back to Watney.

The entire book is filled with that type of stuff: something happens on Mars. Watney deals with it. NASA figures out what Watney’s doing, figures out ways to help Watney from Earth. Something else happens, so now both Watney and NASA are on to Plan D.

This is an awesome story, even if at more than a couple of points, I almost shouted, “What the fuck ELSE could go wrong?!” Because there are a lot of things that go wrong. But I do want to reassure everyone that Watney gets brought home.

The film steers very close to the book – what I liked about the film is we could actually see the science behind Watney’s problem-solvings, although the book does a very good job about describing those concepts. (It’s much more user-friendly than The Big Short was in that regard.)

What I really enjoyed about the book and the movie is the character of Mark Watney. He’s a scientist that’s funny, that can make pop culture references, be relatable, and also competent in the face of danger. We don’t always get his “scared” emotions in the book, because we’re hearing about most of the events through Watney’s log entries, and he’s trying to put on a brave face for the NASA recorders who will have to read them once they’re transmitted back to Earth. The movie does take those moments to show how scared Watney is in the face of almost certain doom, which I appreciated.

But the best part of the book, the movie, and the character of Mark Watney himself: are his quotes.

You may have seen this one before, but the juxtaposition is just … so priceless.  The ‘Teddy’ is the chairman (or whatever) of NASA, and Venkat(*) is the lead scientist on the Ares 3 mission.

Teddy swiveled his chair and looked out the window to the sky beyond. Night was edging in. “What must it be like?” he pondered. “He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?”

He turned back to Venkat. “I wonder what he’s thinking right now.”


How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense. [p. 76]

When NASA and Watney are finally able to exchange emails, we get to see how Watney interacts with the rest of his crew and the scientists back on Earth. Their communications are illuminating.

In other news, I got an e-mail from Venkat Kapoor:

Mark, some answers to your earlier questions:

No, we will not tell our Botany Team to “Go fuck themselves.” I understand you’ve been on your own for a long time, but we’re in the loop now, and it’s best if you listen to what we have to say.

The Cubs finished the season at the bottom of the NL Central.

The data transfer rate just isn’t good enough for the size of music files, even in compressed formats. So your request for “Anything, oh God, ANYTHING but Disco” is denied. Enjoy your boogie fever.  [p. 176]

Mark Watney’s sense of humor has been described as “black humor.” I can attest to that, based on his dining options for his trek to the Ares 4 launch site:

I saved five meal packs for special occasions. I wrote their names on each one. I get to eat “Departure” the day I leave for Schiaparelli. I’ll eat “Halfway” when I reach the 1600-kilometer mark, and “Arrival” when I get there.

The fourth one is “Survived Something That Should Have Killed Me” because some fucking thing will happen, I just know it. I don’t know what it’ll be, but it’ll happen. The rover will break down, or I’ll come down with fatal hemorrhoids, or I’ll run into hostile Martians, or some shit. When I do (if I live), I get to eat that meal pack. [p. 309]

And as if anyone needed any additional proof that Mark Watney is my fictional, botanist engineer counterpart:

[11:49] JPL: What we can see of your planned cut looks good. We’re assuming the other side is identical. You’re cleared to start drilling.
[12:07] WATNEY: That’s what she said.
[12:25] JPL: Seriously, Mark? Seriously?  [p. 260]

(*) The only choice the filmmakers did that I wasn’t appreciative of was the name change of Dr. Venkat Kapoor to Vincent Kapoor. There was no need to Anglicize the character’s name: making that change did not affect the plot, or the characterization. Dear Hollywood: quit doing that. Love, Alaina.

Everything else was good, though.

Grade for The Martian (book): 4 stars
Grade for The Martian (film): 5 stars

Non-fiction: “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre

After the hell that was the last two books, it was extremely refreshing to read this compendium of how the media and medical communities manipluate scientific findings in order to further their own agendas.

Dr. Ben Goldacre runs a blog (also titled Bad Science), and he turned his blog into the book. He is a medical doctor in England, and while I’m unsure if he practices medicine, he definitely understands medicine — and the scientific method — well enough to distill complex theories down so that someone like me can understand them. Some of the concepts he discusses are: the homeopathy movement and the placebo effect; the new career path that is the nutritionist path; and the MMR vaccine potentially (and, it turns out, spuriously) being a cause of autism.

That sounds like a lot of points. But his main point, throughout the book and the different scenarios and studies, is that in order to understand these complex concepts and ideas, all one needs to do is remain informed of the root of the problem.

For instance: one of “Britain’s leading nutritionist[s]” proclaimed in a column

“… An Australian study in 2001 found that olive oil (in combination with fruit, vegetables and pulses) offered measurable protection aganst skin wrinkling. Eat more olive oil by using it in salad dressings or dip bread in it rather than using butter.” [90-91]

A pretty direct link, yes? However, when Dr. Goldacre did research on the nutritionist’s research (which he recommends you do with any new medical breakthrough, not just nutritionists), he found that the study on which this nutritionist based her findings was compiled by pooling four different groups of people in different lifestyles, “and it found that people who had completely different eating habits … also had different amounts of wrinkles.” What the nutritionist didn’t take into account are the “confounding variables”: things that are related to both the thing you’re attempting to measure (wrinkles) and the thing that we’re trying to find affect it (lifestyle). Not just olive oil reduces wrinkles: the place you live, the job you have, all of those aspects of your lifestyle will affect how you generate wrinkles. In her column, the only thing she latched on to was the olive oil.

And there’s more. But the most disturbing piece was on the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and the scare that went out across Britain and is seeping into the US: that giving children the MMR vaccine causes autism. What Dr. Goldacre revealed was that the catalyst for the scare was a paper published that told about eight out of twelve children that were brought into a clinic with gastrointestinal problems. All twelve children had a history of autism (here called a “pervasive developmental disorder”). With the eight children in question,

the onset of behavioral problems had been linked, either by the parents or by the child’s physician, with measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination … In these eight children the average interval from exposure to first behavioral symptoms was 6.3 days (range 1-14). [216]

But how was the link determined? Was it timing? Was another study created based upon this evidence, which seems flimsy at best to a layperson like me, to attempt to prove that the MMR vaccine causes autism? How would one conduct that kind of study — ask parents to make the new Sophie’s Choice, decide whether they want their child to get measles later in life or autism sooner?

I’m not going to get into this here and now. Dr. Goldacre makes the best point he can: that due to many factors, what should have been relegated to the “medical hunch” column got picked up and turned into a national story that created a medical scare no one had seen the likes of. It caused a lot of people to decide to not vaccinate their children, and may have led to an outbreak of the measles in the latter part of the last decade in England. But Dr. Goldacre’s point, again, is this: if the journalists had taken a moment to actually investigate — either on their own or by asking a flotilla of impartial doctors — the tenuous link between MMR and autism, maybe the scare wouldn’t have happened.

Here’s why I really liked this book (although, to be honest, I was expecting the ‘bad science’ to be more along the lines of experiments gone wrong rather than misleading studies and badly reported stories): I’ve been picking away at a second bachelor’s degree, this one in media studies. And my Intro to Communications class was a survey course of different communication theories. I chose to write my paper on Cultivation Theory, which, simply stated, posits that a person will base their worldview on how the world is perceived through media.

A real-world application: let’s say I have a friend who watches just as much TV as I do. And this friend — let’s call her Jane, because I legitimately do not know a Jane — watches the following programs religiously: NCIS, Criminal Minds, Law & Order: SVU, The Vampire Diaries, and Revenge. Now, Jane and I watch NCIS and The Vampire Diaries together, but when Jane goes home, I queue up on the TiVo Community (when it’s on), Once Upon a Time, Modern Family, and Conan.

When Jane and I go into Boston to shop, she stays close to the touristy areas and doesn’t venture far from the beaten path. She keeps a tight grasp on her purse, and doesn’t make eye contact with any passers-by. I, however, nod and smile at people and look for adventure in the oddest of places. Because Jane watches TV that suggests that people — strangers — are either serial killers, psychopaths, and/or sociopaths, she believes that anyone she meets on the street could be a potential villain — or, possibly, a vampire. Whereas I, who watches primarily comedies, believe that people hold the key to the absurd in the everyday, and will trust strangers more easily, and be more adventurous in my travels.

And now, the example that ties everything together!

One of my friends posted to Facebook recently an article discussing a recent House Resolution. According to the linked article, the legislation is the first step towards the United States becoming a police state. The article is titled, “House Passes Bill That Will Make Protesting Illegal at Secret Service Covered Events.” As you can guess, the article claims that “the new legislation allows prosecutors to charge anyone who enters a building without permission or with the intent to disrupt a government function with a federal offense if Secret Service is on the scene …”.

There are many people — not just my facebook friend, but other people, tons who decided to comment anonymously on the article — who believe that this is the government outlawing our god-given right to protest. That any protester, for any reason — or for no reason at all — can be arrested and sent to jail.

Guys. No.

If you read the actual legislation — which I have handily linked to here, for those interested — it is clear that the law is actually written with the, what I call “crazy protesters” in mind. It is clear that the law is designed to protect those precious government buildings and workers from the protestors who intend to disrupt government work, or intend to block the exits or entrances of federal buildings to impede the business going on, or bring physical violence to a protest.

Under this resolution, we as Americans are certainly allowed to protest. The First Amendment gives each of us the right to peaceably assemble. And the most important word in that sentence is peaceably. You can wave signs around in front of any building you wish, and you can yell anything you want at your congressman through the window, and you know what, I’ll bet that you can quietly chant in the Rotunda as long as you aren’t going to reach across the velvet rope and try to accost that congressman. If this law is going to make me do anything, it’s going to protest against the new definition of ‘protest’ that is sweeping the nation.

Anyway. Soapbox destroyed. The point, once more, from myself and from Dr. Goldacre: if people took the time to read things more, and to take the time to become more informed on the facts of a story before storming off to the papers or to post the link to your interwebs, the world would actually be a lot less scary.

Let’s all try it and see if it works. Huh? Come on! It’ll be fun!

Grade for Bad Science: 3.5 stars