Impossible Survival in The Martian and The Long Dark
Welcome back to our series on survival “literature,” where we take a novel, a film, a game, etc. and frame it within the context of The Long Dark. In this entry I look at Andy Weir’s 2011 novel The Martian. This article contains mild spoilers for the beginning of the novel as well as its 2014 film adaptation. -Patrick Carlson
“So that’s the situation. I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days. If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death. So yeah. I’m fucked.” — Astronaut Mark Watney, The Martian
The premise built into Andy Weir’s novel The Martian is one that fans of The Long Dark will recognize: How do the things we have, and the things we build, sustain our lives? How much time do these objects afford us? What are the limits of self-reliance? The book doesn’t waste any time setting the stage: Left for dead by his crewmates after an abandoned mission to the Red Planet, astronaut Mark Watney finds himself a long way from home. His only chance for rescue begins and ends with the not-so-simple goal of staying alive for as many days as he can.
In The Long Dark we become intimately familiar with a similar push for longevity. The community has produced amazing examples of players lasting hundreds and even thousands of days. And many do this by employing a variety of different approaches to the game’s Sandbox mode. In The Martian, Mark Watney does the same, and although his choices might appear to be drawn in starker lines than what we encounter in the Canadian wilderness, at its core, it’s still a classic example of man versus Mother Nature.
The Martian environment is a special kind of frozen wasteland that offers parallel challenges to life in the coldest regions of Earth. The lack of a breathable atmosphere aside, the surface of Mars is remote, barren, and a tough place to grow or scavenge life-sustaining resources. And managing its extreme cold forms the central pivot point of several problems Watney has to solve in order to live long enough to make it home. His solutions aren’t ones that would necessarily make themselves visible to us during a bitter Canadian winter. But they are effective and point to the power of applying basic human ingenuity to the world as it is before us, not the world as we wish it would be. A good lesson in approaching life in general, not to mention a desperate survival situation.
Watney’s struggle unfolds at a relentless pace. With every problem solved another two seem to surface to take its place. In this way the novel’s approach to nature, even a natural world as seemingly alien as the Martian surface, mirrors The Long Dark. In Desolation Point, a gorgeous sunrise viewed from the ice can easily turn into a cold and foggy search for shelter as a storm rolls in. Complacency, even in the face of great beauty, doesn’t bring a survivor very far. Ultimately, you have to keep moving. The world won’t wait for you.
Weir’s stranded astronaut also deals with his isolation by exploiting his sense of humor, an approach to survival that The Long Dark can bring to the surface as well. It can help to look at a dark moment and try to laugh a little at the way luck and chance often force themselves into our lives. Perhaps in those moments where we can crack a smile we’ll see that there are also opportunities that break us from our complacency. A bear attack destroys your warm and precious Mariner’s Pea Coat? Time to finally take a chance on a wolfskin alternative.
This is one area where Watney’s seemingly impossible scenario yields some fascinating storytelling moments. When things go bad, we get to see just how far he will go to overcome them. But we also get to witness how far he can be pushed until even his positive outlook might not hold up to the brutality of his situation.
In these moments, humor becomes a balm, as much for Watney as it is for the reader:
“I finished making water some time ago. I’m no longer in danger of blowing myself up. The potatoes are growing nicely. Nothing has conspired to kill me in weeks. And seventies TV keeps me disturbingly more entertained than it should. Things are stable here on Mars.”
Weir’s writing is disarmingly straightforward, but this is also due to the form of the story itself. Watney communicates to us, the reader, through a series of personal logs that he records using the equipment that’s been left behind with him on Mars. It creates, especially at the beginning of his adventure, a kind of “found-footage” effect that allows the story to progress at a quick pace. We’re never left wondering what the astronaut was left doing on this night or that day, because we are only witnesses to what he reports to us. It’s an abstraction that is incredibly effective at managing the passage of time through the novel.
If you happen to have seen the movie adaptation of The Martian, you’ll have seen a survival story that is both faithfully similar to but also radically different from the one presented in the novel. On the one hand, most of the familiar and heart-stropping moments have been retained in Ridley Scott’s version of the story. On the other hand, the film version draws back the curtain to reveal a different view of Watney’s predicament. Instead of getting to know Mars through his written dispatches, we get to see it for ourselves. Mars, when not viewed through the filter of a desperate astronaut’s struggle for life becomes more beautiful but also less dangerous. For this reason I would recommend pairing the novel and the movie together. Taking in both will give you the best perspective on this thrilling story.
How are we able to laugh at desperate situations? Is humor a natural response to terrible moments or is it something we like to see in the stories we tell each other, if only to keep difficult truths at an arm’s length?
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Editor’s note: The banner image above is courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech. It was taken by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity as it looks down upon “Pillinger Point.” More details on this image can be found here.