As a child, one of my favorite movies was Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson. Based loosely on the novel Der Schweizerische Robinson, the movie follows a family who are shipwrecked on a tropical jungle island on their way to New Guinea. On this uninhabited island they build themselves a fantastical new life out of the surrounding jungle and the wreckage of the ship. There are also pirates.
I loved the adventure and the cleverness of the characters. They just build a new life complete with modern(ish) conveniences out of detritus. Also helped that they also lived in the most bitchin’ awesome treehouse ever. Oh man, I loved treehouses.
The Robinsons weren’t alone. My childhood was awash with survival stories. I read a small mountain of books about teens (usually boys) surviving on their own in the wilderness: My Side of the Mountain, The Hatchet, Z for Zachariah, Tunnel in the Sky. Somehow my formative years were full of survivalist adventures. I suspect I was drawn to these stories for similar reasons that draw teens to all the YA dystopian literature out there. These are stories of age-relatable characters where conflict is distilled down to a clear threat and our protagonists are actually capable of overcoming said threat in a direct and straightforward manner. I suspect that appeals a lot to people of an age where the world is gaining nuance and their agency isn’t keeping up with the expanding scope of their worldview.
But apparently my love of survivalism didn’t end with my childhood. Even today I love a tale of someone thrown into a hostile environment where they survive on their wits, ingenuity, and sheer gumption. The Martian is apparently a perfect intersection of of my love of survival stories, love of space, and love of sass.
Of course, I’m kinda shit at actual survivalism. I was a Boyscout until I was too old (never made Eagle), and while I enjoyed camping, I can’t say I was ever especially good at it. I’m a little obsessively clean and tidy. And of course actual wilderness survival is as boring, tedious, difficult, and soul crushing as urban survival. Survival, in general, sucks. Whether worrying about lighting fires and hunting game or paying bills and nuking pizza, it’s the same shit: finding one meal after another while trying to keep a warm dry spot to your name.
The difference between our normal day in and day out survival in modern civilization and that of the wilderness primarily comes down to the fact that we collectively have made urban survival so neat and clean that we no longer think of it as survival. We’ve built ourselves a largely artificial environment where we make the rules and failing usually doesn’t result in dying of bear attack or dysentery. The game’s rigged, but at least the danger of bear attacks is greatly reduced. The wilderness, by contrast, seems strange and alien outside of our city blocks and suburban developments. We know how to survive in civilization: do a job, pay the bills, build a network of friends to help make it all less terrible. But surviving in a strange place on your own? That’s the stuff of adventures.
Adventures, of course, being just another name for difficult times that make for good stories after the fact.