The Martian in Terms of Orality

Andy Weir’s The Martian is a prime example of the implications of writing and print Walter Ong discussed in his book, Orality and Literacy. In The Martian, intertextuality is overwhelming present as the underlying story of a stranded character trying to escape a life threatening environment is employed. In this story, astronaut Mark Watney had been left on Mars by his crew after they presumed him dead after a severe accident during a Martian storm. Throughout the novel, the readers follow Watney through triumphant successes and epic failures as he uses his technical and analytical ability to survive and eventually escape from the harsh Martian environment. In the words of Watney, “I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead” (Weir 7). This underlying story is familiar because it is present in classic stories like Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and even in modern film like Castaway directed by Robert Zemeckis. In all three of these works, we follow the familiar adventure of a single character as they brave the elements and use their ingenuity to survive in, and eventually escape the environment that previously held them captive. This shows how most of the text we read and write are connected to each other and share resemblance in plot and inspiration. When modern writers became aware of the profuseness of intertextuality in their writing, they questioned if they were “totally under the ‘influence’ of others’ texts” (Ong 131). This idea of lacking originality haunted these modern writers. This sort of problem was not an issue for manuscript cultures who didn’t nearly have such a vast access to a variety of text as we do today. Manuscript translated the oral word into visual space, therefore, adding a new dimension to the words. Once written, this word could still be read aloud and discussed but also now independently analyzed and examined. On the other hand, the issue of intertextuality was not a problem for oral cultures who were often the first to create such stories. This type of culture also thrived on the sharing and building upon of ideas, so the issue of originality was barely considered a problem.

Throughout history, there have always been repercussion against new technologies. In a culture of orality, writing seemed like an anomaly, inhuman and pointless. This is at least what Plato thought. He was very vocal in communicating this opinion. He argued that writing would destroy memory, rendering the necessity of memorization futile. In a sense, this can be true. Having a book for reference about a subject reduces the need to have that content memorized. However, the abundance of books and written texts encourages readers to become familiar with a variety of different texts, therefore expanding their memory and knowledge. The same is true for calculators. Instead of hindering mathematical ability, they increase the efficiency of computations and therefore enables more complex calculations. In The Martian, Mark Watney utilizes many tools like calculators, computers, reference charts and machine parts from the MDV and rover to aid his computations to solve problems as they arise. So in this case, those tools saved Watney’s life. Therefore, technology should not be feared just because it is different from what we’re used to. The pocket calculator was also initially ridiculed by parents as they claimed it would weaken their children’s minds. These concerns were similar to Hieronimo Squarciafico’s argument that the “’abundance of books makes men less studious’” (Ong 79). Similar to the argument concerning the inhumanity of the text, Plato continues that writing cannot defend itself. The oral culture facilitated social interactions in the form of conversation. While text can be read aloud and discussed, it can also be read independently. Because the reader independently read the text, he or she can draw their own conclusions from it. The text cannot defend itself the way it can if the same arguments were spoken from a human. There will be no opportunity for a give and take or a back and forth discussion. The reader only takes away what they have understood from the text. This is just how Mark Watney from The Martian must have been felt as he was recording his journal entries. He longed to speak to other humans (especially his crew and NASA to let them know he was alive) but initially had no way of getting in contact with anyone else. He was stranded on an entire planet by himself. Writing the journal entries provided him a method of delayed communication that he hoped would eventually reach other humans. In a sense, that’s what writing is. People write with the hope that someone will hear their story and their voice. Therefore, I would argue that writing actually fosters a greater sense of community and humanity. It improves communication between generations and preserves ideas across time that would have been lost otherwise.

-Tiffany Ramcharan


One thought on “The Martian in Terms of Orality

  1. “This sort of problem was not an issue for manuscript cultures who didn’t nearly have such a vast access to a variety of text as we do today. ”

    Very good point, and one for others to note. Even though print and manuscript are forms of writing, the produce very different results in how we think and the stories we tell.


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