“The Martian” by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir, published: 2014, 389 pages, Random House.

The Martian is frankly just a really, really fun book. I knew it would be, it’s what everyone’s been saying, and why I was interested in it in the first place (plus my eternal love for sci-fi). Back in january I was having a shitty day, so I went out and bought books to cheer myself up.

I stood in the bookstore and gazed at this book, thinking “Am I finally gonna do it? I’m finally gonna do it” and I bought it. Sadly they didn’t have the original cover, which is absolutely gorgeous, so I had to make do with a kind of, well, I won’t say ugly, but slightly less gorgeous version. We all must make sacrifices in life.

Before this I’d read the first half of Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, Nigthwood by Djuna Barnes and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in about a week (I was trying to get caught up on uni reading). No hard feelings, they’re all truly excellent books that I loved, but at the same time if I had to read one more page of metaphor heavy, run-on sentences without plot I might very well have gone insane.

The Martian was my solution.

It’s the story of Mark Watney who strands on Mars, alone, unable to communicate with NASA, with a pretty good chance of dying in a myriad of ways. You know, fun.

Not just because Mark Watney is funny (he is, I think some people had a problem with his sort of humor, but I loved it), but because it’s a fucking adventure. A space adventure! A very realistic space adventure, but an adventure nonetheless! It’s technical, yeah, which is why Watney needs to be so funny, because there’s no freaking way we’re reading almost 20 pages of someone describing growing potatoes and creating water (even if it’s on Mars) if he’s not entertaining – so it was technical in a way that didn’t bother me. Half the time I had no idea what the hell was going on, because I couldn’t visualize it (here the movie definitely helped), but somehow it didn’t matter. I have zero clue if the science holds up and frankly I don’t care.

Andy Weir made it seem believable and that’s all that matters. You wouldn’t think science was so much fun (well, it can be, but rarely when you’re describing it, rather when you’re doing it), but told the right way it really, really is. Of course the immense odds stacking against Watney help keep the reader glued to the page, and the utterly ridiculous risks he has to run to, well, ‘science the shit out of it’ is, no matter how technical the descriptions, nervewracking. I mean, setting fire to rocket fuel? Insane… please tell me more.

It isn’t all fun and games, though, and a few well-timed reminders showed the fairly bleak life Watney actually leads up there. Most of the time he skims over the solitude (the way it’s told helps make that believable), which only makes it that much more efficient when it shows up.

Mostly I think I liked it because, aside from the obvious heroic aspect of surviving alone on a deserted, desert planet (even if it’s some very “everyday heroics”), there’s something heroic about the idea that is, in many ways, the heart of the novel. Not just humanity’s incredible endurance in horrible situations, but the idea, as Watney points out near the end, that humanity will work together, spend a stupid amount of money, take enormous risks, in short: do everything it takes, to (perhaps succesfully) save one person. One single, lonely botanist in space.

It doesn’t matter who’d been stranded on that planet, in a way Mark Watney is utterly replaceable, he isn’t special because he’s Mark Watney, he’s special because he’s human, and because his situation reminds us how invaluable a human life is. You can’t put a price on it. No matter who’d been on that planet, no matter who’d survived, they’d be doing everything they possibly could to get them back. So often we forget the individual human beings who hide underneath the masses, the statistics, and stories like ‘The Martian’ reminds us that no one deserves to be abandoned on a murderous, desert planet in space. Whatever it takes to get him back; it’s worth it. And I like Andy Weir for pointing that out near the end, lest we forget.

It isn’t a perfect book, but damn if it wasn’t a fun ride.

I watched the movie afterwards and that, too, is a fun ride. I prefer the book, but a lot of the technical things that went over my head in the book were a lot easier to understand in the movie. The two go well together.

“The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” by Anne Brontë

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë, originally published: 1848, 394 pages, Wordsworth Classics.

I tore through the first 80 pages online during a tedious uni conference and straight after I went out and bought myself a paperback copy of it. At first I thought it was a Pride and Prejudice type story, you know, two people fall in love, but they’re too stubborn to admit it and other things get in the way until they get each other in the end. For a long while I stuck to that theory, so much in the text supported it, but then again… So many things pointed towards something else entirely. There was the mystery of Helen’s past, her son, her willing seclusion from society. Whatever I expected her secret to be it wasn’t what I got.

You start with Gilbert Markham as narrator. He promises a friend to tell his story, and so he does through a series of letters, but then there’s a change. It shifts from his perspective to the perspective of Helen Graham. Gilbert provides his friend with entries from her diary, and as such is nearly the rest of the novel told.

We hear of her falling in love and her marriage to Arthur Huntingdon, we watch the slow unveiling of his true self: abusive, selfish and cruel. Helen, to start with, bears it, she hopes to fix him, to make him a better man through the force of her love and devotion. It doesn’t work, as we well know, but then she’s pregnant and for the child’s sake she stays – and for the child’s sake, she eventually leaves.

It’s staggeringly brave. Not just what Helen does, but that she’s allowed to do it. It’s brave that this book even exists. What went on between husband and wife back then – in fiction as well as in reality – and in many ways now as well, was not the business of anyone else. Women were supposed to bear the abuse, and keep the family together, as ridiculous and impossible as it may have been. And then Anne Brönte writes a book about it, not from an outside perspective, but by giving voice to such a woman and telling us her story? That’s cold as hell and brave. She writes a book about a woman in an abusive marriage, who bears that abuse, but not in the way she’s supposed to, and then suddenly she doesn’t bear it any more. She manages to stay with him on her own terms in a lot of ways. She bears mockery, humiliation, fear and cruelty, but she doesn’t break and she doesn’t bend. Over the course of her narrative, we see her going from young and naïve, to the headstrong, willful and determined woman we met alongside Gilbert to begin with.

She learns to accept her own mistakes and shape her own future, regardless of what the law or religion say about marriage, she never falters in her belief that she is worthy of something better. She refuses to stick to the norm, to keep her head down, to endanger herself and her son, to live in constant fear and shame. Her narrative is by far the more interesting, it’s filled with intrigue, drama and tension, near constant nail-biting tension, will she get away? Will she be okay? What will happen? All the while hoping there’s a happy ending in there somewhere, for Helen who stays so strong and so unflinchingly her own.

Thank you, Anne Brönte, for that. For not wavering, for not making excuses. For giving Helen a narrative that is so full of power, that makes Helen not just a strong female character, but a complex character, with doubts, flaws and fears. It would’ve been so easy to make her a saint, or a perfect example of ‘the strong woman’, but she’s not, she’s her own person. That was perhaps the most remarkable thing about this novel.

I regret that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is somewhat forgotten in the shadow of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. I love Jane Eyre with all my heart, but in many ways this is a more important book. If only because it is, sadly, still relevant today. To be in a situation like Helen’s – however much it may differ today from 150 years ago – and then read this story? To understand that it’s possible to rebel against it? That you are not a lesser person in this scenario? It’s important.

If you’ve ever enjoyed any book from the Brontë sisters, you’ll love this too. And if you’ve never read anything by any of them? Please don’t skip this one.