Stories of stranded people having to survive on their own in an uninhabited (or seemingly so) place can be quite clever— depending on the audience reading from the comfort of their non-stranded environment. I’ve been reminded of a couple of these types of stories recently: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and The Martian by Andy Weir. Both stories are important, but to me, The Martian amplifies the importance of Robinson Crusoe.
The story of Robinson Crusoe involves our main character —young European Robinson Crusoe— becoming the sole survivor of a shipwreck which crashed somewhere unfamiliar. He feels both pained and thankful for being the sole survivor, as if God gave him redemption through his survival. Using the remains of the shipwreck, he builds himself a fort to survive in for more than 20 years before he’s rescued. During this time, the only human contact he has is with a few of the indigenous people there, one of whom he saves from being eaten by the others (who Robinson gives the name “Friday”) and teaches him his European ways.
The Martian is a story of Mark Watney, an astronaut botanist stranded on Mars, surviving until the world can ensure his safe recovery back to Earth. He encounters several problems such as the need to create more food to eat, communicating remotely with NASA through a rover, and traveling to the site where he can be remotely launched to the spaceship that will take him back to Earth.
Now that the basic plot introductions are out of the way, we need to keep in mind that these two books took place centuries apart and were also published centuries apart (1719 versus 2014). The world in the books and the world where the audience lives changed drastically in this time. For a few examples, in the time of The Martian, slavery has been abolished, traveling around the world has become much easier, perspectives of women and minorities are given more attention, technology communication is much better, believing in God isn’t the only option, space travel exists, et cetera. There are more differences in the time change, but these are some of the ones that are prominent based on the differences between how these two stranded stories are told. In Robinson Crusoe, the man trades slaves, he gets stranded due to a boat crash, women and minorities aren’t given much (if any) thought, he can’t just call someone to pick him up, thinking about God takes up a large part of his estrangement, and well… space travel just isn’t a thing.
In a word, many people reading this nowadays would consider this book outdated. Or in two words… very outdated.
We read several books that are outdated and call them classics, but why should we read this one? Why read about someone we don’t relate to and wouldn’t aspire to be even if we could relate to them? Looking at Mark Watney’s journey in The Martian, we can find our answer.
Mark Watney, The Martian’s main character, must face problem after problem head on. In The Martian, Mark Watney has to figure out how to farm land on Mars to survive long enough to meet up with the NASA shuttle retrieving him at a set time on a planet where he can’t breathe without a suit. If he doesn’t, he dies. The problems in Robinson Crusoe are much less severe, as he has the food of the land to survive off of as well as time to build his residence. So the severity of their problems is different, but their character traits shown through these problems are even more important.
Mark is smart, well-trained for spaceflight, relies on science more than faith, and learns from his past. I would argue that Robinson isn’t as well trained or smart about seafare as he’d like to be, relies on faith to make it through his day, and despite learning how to craft a decent fort, he doesn’t learn from his past. This is demonstrated by how he treated the indigenous Friday like a slave despite being a slave himself once. The differences between these two characters are telling for the time each story was published. As each story is about their successful survival from estrangement, the characters become an example of an ideal person who can make it on their own, away from society. The interesting differences in their character traits point out that they were this same ideal example, but centuries apart.
Okay, since Mark Watney is that ideal example of someone who survives on their own nowadays, let’s solely focus on him? No! That’s not how we do things.
Looking at Robinson Crusoe —someone who practically enslaves an indigenous person, thinks believing in God is the only method of belief, and all these “outdated” traits— is important to seeing how far we’ve come as people. The ideal European man apart from society who was able to survive on his own (Robinson Crusoe) became the ideal person apart from the world who is able to survive on their own (Mark Watney). Subjugation of other people became working together with space agencies all over the world. Religious thinking became scientific thinking. Not learning from the past became adaptation. Outdated became hope for the future.
Essentially, Robinson Crusoe is important for looking into the past, and The Martian helps us see how far we’ve progressed as a global society. Especially when we consider that both of these books were popular and well-received in their time, we know that they represent interesting stories that people absorbed enough to spread to more people. Through this spreading of story, these stranded stories express the differences between their time of publishing. For us, reading these stories nowadays, this perspective change brings new awareness and appreciation for how people have changed over time.
So if you’d like to read a couple of stories about a single person surviving being stranded, you know the two books to read. When you read The Martian, try seeing if you can relate to or aspire to be like Mark Watney. And when you read Robinson Crusoe, try looking for the ideals that once were and comparing them to yours.
Now, when you’re stranded on a deserted island, you know which two books to have with you to give you hope in humanity and pass the survival time until rescue. You’re welcome.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. William Taylor, 1719.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars. 1964.
Weir, Andy. The Martian. Crown Publishing, 2014.
Uhhh... despite my education, I don't know how to cite the Watney image, so here's where I found it: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/542683823839388950/
Sorry for my unprofessionalism, English teachers of the world.