Andy Weir, author of The Martian, explains that the key breakthrough in writing his novel came when
he realized that "science creates plot." He certainly isn't the first sci-fi writer to prefer rigorous science
over fanciful detail—back in 1865,
Jules Verne described a trip to the moon that anticipated many of the
key details of the later Apollo project. John Brunner’s
Stand on Zanzibar was so accurate in predicting
the future,(well, now it's the present) he deserves the title of seer. The dystopian technologies of Orwell
and Huxley show up nowadays in the daily news. Even so, few genre writers have pushed technological
realism to the extreme achieved by Weir.

What does Weir really mean by creating plot with science?  Here’s
an example encountered midway in the novel, when Martian castaway
Mark Watney finds himself forty meters away from his breached living
quarters, which just lost all its breathable atmosphere, and his broken
spacesuit is also rapidly leaking air. At this dramatic moment in the
book, Weir conveys his hero’s predicament in the following terms:

The suit is designed for eight hours of use. That works out to 250
milliliters of liquid oxygen. Just to be safe, the suit has a full liter
of O2 capacity. But that’s only half the story. The rest of the air is
nitrogen. It’s just there to add pressure. When the suit leaks, that’s
what it backfills with. The suit has two liters of liquid N2 storage.

Let’s call the volume of the airlock two cubic meters. The inflated
EVA suit probably takes up half of it. So it took five minutes to add
0.2 atmospheres to 1 cubic meter. That’s 285 grams of air (trust me
on the math). The air in the tanks is around 1 gram per cubic
centimeter, meaning I just lost 285 milliliters.

The three tanks combined had 3000 milliliters to start with. A lot
of that was used to maintain pressure while the airlock was leaking.
Also, my breathing turned some oxygen into carbon dioxide, which
was captured by the suit’s CO2 filters.

Checking the readouts, I see that I have 410 milliliters of oxygen, 738 milliliters of nitrogen. Together,
they make almost 1150 milliliters to work with. That, divided by 285 milliliters lost per minute…

Once I’m out of the airlock, this EVA suit will only last four minutes.

Fuck.

Did you follow all that? We will have a brief quiz at the end of today’s period. Make sure you get the
grams to milliliters conversion correct.

Other sci-fi authors would probably start with the final expletive, and perhaps mention the four minutes
of remaining breathing time. But what commercial author would dare include the preceding four
paragraphs, with their precise calculations? Are there really enough nerds out there to buy a book of
science fiction that contains more science than fiction?

I have a barroom bet for highbrow drinkers that has always paid off. Hand your boozing companion a
copy of Ernest Hemingway’s
The Sun Also Rises, and bet the next round that any page, chosen at
random, will mention either food or alcohol. Trust me, this pays off with better odds than owning a
bloody casino. Well, I now have another barroom bet, suitable for tech workers and science wonks.
Hand them
The Martian, and wager that any random page will include some measurement—whether
of space, time, energy, storage, or another scientific variable. Keep Weir’s book by your side, and
you will drink for free at every watering hole in Silicon Valley.

I suspect that Weir would never have gotten a book contract (and a movie deal!) if he hadn’t first
published this story himself, and found a large, enthusiastic audience.  When he initially uploaded
The Martian on to his website in 2011, the publishing industry paid no attention to this West Coast
software developer, the son of an accelerator physicist dad and electrical engineer mom. In fact, no
one in the book biz really took notice for two years, not until the e-book version of
The Martian started
selling more than 10,000 copies per month. Agents had turned down his previous overtures, but now
one approached him, and soon had a deal for an audiobook. A few weeks later deals fell in place for
a hardcover book and a motion picture.  

By 2015, everyone was a Mark Watney fan, including movie audiences in the 81 countries where the
film version of
The Martian was released, as well as the folks at NASA who launched a website to
allow fans to follow the fictional astronaut’s trek across the Martian terrain.

And what was the story of this blockbuster hit, once you

stripped away the measurements and tabulations and
formulas?  It’s actually one of the oldest in the history of
the novel. Back in 1719, when the rules of narrative fiction
were in flux, and the conventions of the modern novel were
still under construction, Daniel Defoe published his classic
work Robinson Crusoe. A British mariner finds himself
stranded on a deserted island after a shipwreck, and
must find a way to survive and, if possible, return home.
Weir’s book The Martian takes this story and translates it to Mars, where our intrepid castaway
has been left for dead by his fellow astronauts. But Mark Watney is still alive, and faces
the daunting task of overcoming almost insurmountable obstacles in his quest to return to planet Earth.

These obstacles involve lack of communications with NASA, shortages of food, broken equipment
of various sorts, limited water supply and a host of unanticipated problems caused either by Mars or
Watney’s own mistakes. Adding to the degree of difficulty, his best chance for escape from the Red
Planet requires him to travel thousands of kilometers to the planned landing site for the next Mars
expedition.

If this were a typical sci-fi story from the Golden Age, Watney would enlist the support of
extraterrestrials, engage in battles and ambushes, and maybe even have a fling with a Martian
princess. Such was the survival plan practiced by swashbuckling John Carter in Edgar Rice
Burroughs' popular Martian novels from a century ago. Carter never had trouble breathing the
Martian atmosphere or dealing with food shortages—although he did take advantage of the
weaker gravitational pull of his new home, which gave him a key advantage in hand-to-tentacle
combat.

Ah, Mr. Weir doesn't play by those
traditional rules of pulp fiction (or, rather, the lack of rules).
Instead his hero conquers the challenges of Mars one equation at a time. Give Weir credit that for
making this unlikely approach to storytelling work, and not just for a few pages, but for the entire
duration of a medium-sized novel.

I wouldn't recommend this book to most readers, or even to most fans of genre fiction. If you gauge
the success of an adventure story by its fight scenes or body count, take a pass on
The Martian. But
if you find artistry in the rigor and symmetry of analytical thought, or if you like heroes who conquer
with intellect instead of their fists (a tradition that dates back to the
Odyssey), or if you just want to
read a plausible story about how a real-life castaway might find his way back 250 million kilometers
to home base, this m
ay become one of your favorite novels.

Yet how odd that one of the most surprising science fiction novels in recent memory succeeds simply
by taking the science seriously and mixing it with one of the most familiar plots in the history of fiction.
That may seem like a tepid formula, but in this instance it produced a runaway hit and cross-platform
brand franchise. With a opening gambit such as this, it can only be a matter of time before Mark
Watney heads off to Jupiter, Saturn and points beyond.


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books. His most recent
book is
How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).


Publication date: November 19, 2017
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The Martian

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Essay by Ted Gioia
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.
Fledgling

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gardner, John
Grendel

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady
Horrorstör

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel
Submission

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen
Carrie

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.
Tales

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram
Dracula

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Yamada, Taichi
Strangers

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal


Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List



Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

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Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
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SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog


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Andy Weir doesn't play by
the traditional pulp fiction
rules. His hero conquers the
challenges of Mars one
equation at a time.