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Audrey Recommends: Learning From "The Martian"


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Audrey's CornerIs there a more classic story than man vs. nature?

I think we all know how much fun a good survival story can be. It awakens our most basic instincts as human beings, as animals. Watching a character fight for their life against the terrifying vicissitudes of an inhospitable wilderness will get anyone's empathy-neurons firing.

But only if done well.

I don't know about you, but I've plodded through enough snooze-fest survivalist yarns to be suspicious of the genre. One can't just plant a dude in the wild and watch him survive. A writer can pour all the blood, guts, lions, and quicksand into the story that they want. They can make it fast-paced and snarky, or gritty and dark. Doesn't matter. If a story is missing these three key elements, then no reader in the world is going to care about the character fighting for their lives.

What are those three elements, you ask?

Well, let's look to one of my all-time favorite survivalist stories to find out!

In my not-so-humble opinion, The Martian is one of the best science fiction books (and movies!) in recent memory. It's eminently entertaining, and therefore worthy of study for us entertainers. Now, I'll be honest with you: it's not the best writing in the world. The prose itself is pretty pedestrian. It's not poetic, intellectual, or particularly deep in its commentary of mankind. After all, I think we'd all do our best to survive if we were stuck on Mars.

But I (and millions of other people) picked up that book and didn't put it down until we were done.

Why?

First of all, one has to consider the hook. A hook is, as you probably know by now, the thing that actually makes readers take a chance on your novel. It's the core of your story, the boiled-down concept in it's purest form, the cool thing that makes someone sit up and say 'tell me more.' Well boy does The Martian have a doozy of a hook! One could sum up this whole novel in four words: Cast Away on Mars. Boom! Right away, you know what the book is about. You know the promise the book is making to you. When picking up this story, you can expect a likable character in a desperate situation struggling to survive and return home. You'll experience the (understandable!) psychological toll and struggle of isolation in a totally foreign, interplanetary environment. On top of that, it's a contemporary, timely topic that every good sci-fi nerd has on their mind (thank you Mr. Musk). So, right out of the gate, Andy Weir is raking in the fans.

Most people would think that the second thing would be the setting, or perhaps the scientific accuracy. And don't get me wrong, those are both great! I know a lot of people who recommend this book because it uses actual science, actual research, and actual inventions based on the technology we have now. All very cool. However, that's not what kept me reading.

The second most important reason The Martian is such a success is its namesake character: Mark Watney.

Like I said, it's tempting to just plop some guy into a desperate, life-threatening situation. But that's not enough to make someone actually care. The reason you care about Watney is because he's a terrifically sympathetic main character. He's lighthearted, clever, and fun to spend time with, not to mention a bada** scientist. Within a few pages, you're charmed by his voice and rooting for him to survive. As the story progresses, you learn through the rest of the crew that he really is a great, brilliant guy, one they're all invested in saving. But even from that first page, I wanted more of Watney, was impressed by Watney, and understood Watney on a personal level. Therefore it became ever more important that he not die.

Presto! Instant page-turner.

Finally, the thing that really seals the deal for The Martian is the plot. This book takes no time at all to get moving. On the very first page, Watney is already in the most dangerous situation of his life, arguably of any human life ever. He's alone on Mars, abandoned by his crew in the midst of a dangerous storm. There's no slow build-up or info-dumping to set the stage. There's no tedious ramping up of conflict. No, the inciting incident happens before the book even starts, and the tension doesn't ever stop. Just when you think he has things figured out, something blows up, or fails. Critical life-support systems aren't trustworthy, and you read the whole book on the edge of your seat, wondering when the next shoe's going to drop. That's the mark of a good storyteller: unpredictability. The plot isn't linear, it isn't easy, and that makes it a darn fun ride.

Overall, The Martian is one of those wonderful breakout novels where the stars perfectly aligned. It was a great concept at the right time, written with a terrific voice and solid tension. The window-dressing elements of the technology and side-characters do help push the book into the stratosphere it reached (and the incredible casting of the movie pushed it further), but really The Martian is, at its core, just a really excellent example of a survival story.

Now don't mind me as I hoard oxygen canisters in my basement...

Till next time!

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