Diversity of communication media in Andy Weir’s The Martian

“Technologies are artificial, but…artificiality is natural to human beings.”

— Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy, p. 82


The diversity of communication forms devised by humans, evident in Andy Weir’s The Martian, demonstrate Ong’s statement well; rather than corrupting a natural state, communication technologies enrich the human experience by encouraging different types of conversations and satisfying different needs. Methods of communication range from instantaneous/most interactive (e.g., orality/speech) to permanent/least interactive (e.g., literacy/print).

The Martian’s juxtaposition of the two communication extremes reveals varying applications for each style. Weir tells much of the story via intensely dialogue-driven scenes in NASA’s headquarters and a single, first-person log used to give Watney’s perspective. The dialogues progress less linearly, with multiple characters giving perspectives and adding to the plot, while Watney’s log is, for the most part, a simple, chronological account of just his own experience. Within the universe of the novel, these different communication strategies serve their purposes; the fast-paced conversations of officials at NASA are key to cooperating for Watney’s survival, while Watney’s log fulfills an internal desire to tell his story and helps to keep him sane while he’s the only man on Mars. Outside the universe of the novel, the variety of writing style emphasizes the contrast between Watney’s isolation and NASA’s busy collaboration as well as makes the novel stylistically interesting.

Watney’s narration is particularly interesting, as it demonstrates both organizational/practical and more personal communicative aspects of the written word. Sometimes, it seems clear that Watney is simply verbalizing his own thought processes, such as on Sol 25 when he describes his plan to turn the inside of the Hab into arable land. He lists out supplies that he has, bats around some math, and verbalizes doubts in order to organize his thoughts (“I still don’t have the water to moisten all that soil, but like I said, one thing at a time”, p. 19). This use of writing seems logical since, as Ong points out, print made possible and encouraged lists and indexes, which, in an oral world, were impossible to save and somewhat awkward to give. A permanent log stands to benefit Watney’s repairs. Additionally, a log that is one day found could benefit science as a whole, a cause that Watney would probably support.

On the other hand, however, Watney uses a gratuitous amount of direct address for a log that is purely for organizational and practical purposes. The same log entry begins, “Remember those old math questions you had in algebra class?” (p. 18). The use of writing or print as a personal message is hardly explored by Ong, who makes no mention of letters, emails, or similar media, but Watney’s belief that his words will get to someone eventually makes him want to reach out in a more personal way. His questions don’t really require answers, but they’re conversational in tone. Although Watney is unable to engage in a back-and-forth conversation with his reader, he’s definitely grasping for a way to fulfill his need for communication. 

Throughout The Martian, Weir continues to play with different modes of communication on multiple levels. Characters in the book propose and use various means of communication dictated by the needs of the situation, including satellite imaging, Watney’s ASCII “Speak & Spell” method using Pathfinder’s camera, the rover’s messaging system, and more. The book itself also varies style in order to give a variety of perspectives on the story’s development, with Weir conveying the story through logs, dialogue, descriptions of press conferences and television interviews, emails, and traditional narrative description (notably, in the description of the manufacturing and deployment of Sheet AL102, which [[spoiler]] ultimately fails). While Ong notes that different modes of communication can be seen as in conflict (Plato rejected writing in favor of speech, just as concern over computer overuse has led some to prefer the written word), in Weir’s novel at least, many modes of communication can coexist.


2 thoughts on “Diversity of communication media in Andy Weir’s The Martian

  1. ” This use of writing seems logical since, as Ong points out, print made possible and encouraged lists and indexes, which, in an oral world, were impossible to save and somewhat awkward to give.”

    Excellent observation, and props for taking on the perhaps more challenging idea of how language technologies affect/reflect how we think.


  2. Pingback: A deeply text-based novel that somehow feels at home on the silver screen | HDCC 208: Digital Storytelling

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