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[Yang Sung-jin] Precious items for a castaway

“The Martian” is a science fiction novel by American author Andy Weir. I read the book in an electronic version on my Kindle over a period of three days. It is a book that’s hard to put down. But before I go any further, here’s a warning: anyone planning to read this novel or watch its film adaptation due out early next month will be advised to avoid reading this spoiler-infested column.

Now that you’ve bravely decided to read on, I feel much better talking about the fascinating storyline of “The Martian.” It’s about a make-or-break situation: you are left alone in a remote place for some reason, and have to survive -- and remain sane -- until somebody else comes down to save you.

Our hero, NASA astronaut Mark Watney, is in this extremely harsh situation. He gets stranded on Mars when his colleagues of the Ares 3 mission evacuate their landing site as a result of an unexpected dust storm that threatens to disrupt their return flight.

Watney is presumed to be dead, but as with other heroes in the literary genre, he turns out to be alive, only with a minor injury. So far, so good. What’s a bit tricky is that he is unable to contact Earth and yet has to find a way to survive on Mars with limited resources.

Watney thankfully records his castaway experience in a journal for future space archeologists. His log entries are full of surprises, reflecting his creative tricks that remind me of MacGyver.

Watney’s resourcefulness has to do with his two specialties -- he’s a botanist and mechanical engineer. The mix of the two professional knowledge bases allows him to grow potatoes (yes, on Mars!) and fix machines and gear to lay the foundation to increase the odds of survival.

What helps Watney to tinker with all the high-tech spacecraft devices is the standardized parts with the same valve. NASA scientists apparently believe that a standard interface not only increases efficiency but also boosts the chance of impromptu recombination of parts suitable for emergencies.

The standard valve Watney utilizes -- the universal building block -- comes in handy. When I was attending a biology class in Daejeon as part of a Science Journalism graduate course at KAIST two weeks ago, the same principle came off as intriguing. All living organisms on Earth have the same DNA molecules, using the same four-letter code composed of the same nucleotide bases. What a neat idea, I thought, while reading the novel on my Kindle in different places such as the living room, on the subway and the toilet.

The word toilet evokes a sad memory about what I had gone through -- an ordeal that might be similar to what Watney endured.

Back in the 2000s, I got a chance to visit Boston to write on Lycos, a search engine company, with other Korean reporters. One night, we had a late dinner and drank together way past midnight. As Watney does every day on Mars whenever nature calls, I also made my way to the toilet, only to realize when I came out that other reporters already got on to the rented bus and returned to the hotel. I was utterly stranded at an obscure bar in Boston, without any clue about the location of my hotel or its phone number. As with Watney on Mars, I had no way to contact other reporters or a guide or a bus driver. I had to use what I had to find a way back to the hotel. It was a terrible experience (though, it’s really funny whenever I recall the toilet-sparked castaway experience).

What I can spill about “The Martian” is that its storyline is far better than my sorry state in Boston. And I felt thankful again for the Kindle that I could use to read English-language novels and nonfiction with the simple click of a button. I’m not a big fan of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, but I think highly of the universal (at least in English language) e-book device and the standardized platform.

The success story of “The Martian” author Andy Weir is also closely linked to the Kindle. Weir, who calls himself “a nerd,” put his book in a serial format one chapter at a time for free on his blog. As his online novel gained more readers, some requested Weir put together his installments in a Kindle format. He set the price of the Kindle version at 99 cents. The rest is history: 35,000 copies were sold in three months, sending the title to the best-selling list, and a publisher and movie producers rushed to sign a contract with the little-known author, who never imagined renowned director Ridley Scott would take the helm of the film adaptation, starring Matt Damon.

In a scene on Mars where free time is aplenty (thanks to the disconnection with other people), Watney reads all the books and watches all the old TV dramas and listens to all the songs left by other crew members. The scene made me ponder what I would bring with me, if I am given a chance to pick only one item when I get stranded in a remote place. I might go for the Kindle filled with lots of fantasy novels in order to forget about my hopeless state; what will be your Watney-on-Mars item?

By Yang Sung-jin

Yang Sung-jin is the digital content desk editor of The Korea Herald. He can be reached at ― Ed.

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