Simplistically speaking, intertextuality refers to the relationships that exist between texts. When an author sets out to tell a story, regardless of the medium, s/he need not start from scratch – storytellers have built on each other’s stories (both consciously and unconsciously) since the very genesis of the oral tradition. This innate and inevitable layering of meaning enables authors to add depth to a text using metaphors, allusions, and archetypes which rely on their audiences’ shared experiences and collective understandings.
Andy Weir’s The Martian builds off an archetypal desertion story (we mentioned Robinson Crusoe in class, for example), while simultaneously relying on the contemporary cultural prominence of space travel and exploration (think Star Wars). I’m sure that The Martian’s archetypal roots will be discussed in at least one blog post, so I want to concentrate the on creative liberties that Weir is able to take in crafting a surprisingly technical piece of fiction. Realistically, the narrow slice of the population that has first-hand experience with interplanetary travel, or at least astronautics, is exceptionally narrow indeed. Yet a pervasive cultural familiarity with space stories allows us to keep up with a fast-paced technical narration. Even without NASA-level comprehension, the average reader is able to follow Mark Watney’s crises with oxygen regulation, airlocks, and the radioisotope thermoelectric generator. Importantly, in telling Watney’s stories through conversational journal entries, Weir is able to simplify and contextualize complex technical details in a way we can understand (think about the way they present complex surgeries in Grey’s Anatomy, for instance). The importance of making his narration comprehensible to a general audience is essential because Weir is presenting his story in novel form – what Walter Ong would refer to as autonomous discourse. Because we are not able to receive any further clarification or response from the text, Weir must make Watney’s entries as comprehensible as possible to avoid alienating his readers (no pun intended).
To respond to Ong’s closing emphasis on secondary orality: I believe that Weir is able to take creative liberties in his composition of Watney’s story in ways that would have been impossible prior to the advent of electronic technology. Ong argues that “secondary orality creates a sense for groups immeasurably larger than those of primary oral culture – McLuhan’s ‘global village'” (134). Not only does Weir’s narrative assume and build off our familiarity with an archetypal desertion story and the basic components of space fiction (widely popularized through cinema and television), it also incorporates non-narrative storytelling methods such as transcribed emails, computer readouts, and instant messages. These elements allow us as readers to connect to the story through shared experiences with similar media. Ultimately, through fundamental creative choices like this, Weir is able to spin a new tale from an array of intertextual threads.