The joke is that 50% of NASA's employees are dyslexic. The joke is so old that one awesome asshole managed to convince someone at QI, that weird British trivia show, that the joke is real.
It's not. How the fuck would NASA know? Employees go through a lot of tests, a lot of training, but it's not like prospective candidates are plunked down to take a test. There's not a test. There's a list of symptoms, which someone may or may not experience.
Seriously. How the fuck would NASA know.
Sitting at the worktable, gazing over his field of potatoes, ignoring the smell of shit and the sweat sticking to his skin, Mark reads. The one thing that doesn't completely suck about the personal data his crewmates left behind is the book collection. Ebooks are tiny, tiny slivers of data, barely taking up a couple of gigabytes if the user is really working at it. Collectively, from everyone's personal data store, Mark has a library of fifteen thousand books to choose from. He's practically spoiled for choice.
He is one of the mythical 50%. He is--duhn duhn na na!--dyslexic.
Like, whatever. He has two masters' degrees. He's a freakin' astronaut. He is the King of Mars. One learning disability does not impede King Mark. Clearly.
But it does make his most broad and accessible entertainment kind of irritating.
All of the tablets and laptops come with a variety of fonts, and he'd dropped a folder of fonts into his own personal storage which included a couple of fonts aimed at dyslexic readers. It's the work of a minute to upload them to all of the devices he uses--there are a lot--and then pick a book and load it up. He chooses "John Carter of Mars." The irony just sinks in so beautifully.
He digs in.
After one chapter he stops. That little headache between his eyes has shown up again. Bastard.
He'd also brought a couple dozen audiobooks with him--he hadn't really thought he'd need too many, with all the work to do on Hermes and planet-side--and now he almost doesn't want to start one because he knows just how quickly he'll run out of them.
Mark makes the rounds, watering the areas that need to be watered, eating half a packet of salisbury steak (Martinez' pick, the jackass) and a few almonds (Beth was totally obsessed and wouldn't share; take that, Johanssen). He puts the Bee Gees' 1st on and rolls his eyes as he sings every word of every song. Goddamn disco.
He checks the water, he checks the solar converter, he checks to see if there are any socks left in the bunks. There aren't. And no cleaner, either. It wasn't exactly a high priority to put a nice washer and dryer set in the Hab.
And then, after he's gone through everything he can think of for the time being, he goes back to the book.
This time, he lets his eyes rest between sections, imagines meeting John Carter here, riding a Throat and waving his long-sword around. He opens his eyes, reads some more, rests his eyes. The headache stays at bay, more or less, but it's not like Mark isn't constantly feeling shitty anyway, so he's willing to accept it as baselines.
The kind of cool thing about being dyslexic is that scientists seem prone to it. Mark did his fourth-grade book report on Dr Chris Tonkin, a medical researcher from Australia who investigated cool shit like parasites. Mark had trouble saying "toxoplasma," and had an equally tough time explaining it to the class--"Like, they're bugs," he said, "inside your body cells." The audible gasp was totally worth it, though.
Mark's dad had helped him with the research, and Mark was sold when his dad read to him about Tonkin's "sense of this as a sensitivity to "things out of place.'" Mark was having a shitty time of it what with the importance placed on the reading program and his gravitation towards picture books that didn't count because they were for the younger grade. But when he heard that, he got it. He was totally the best at finding Waldo, he could always see the 3D images in the weird dizzying patterns before the other kids, and devoured the section of math devoted to finding patterns and recognizing how a pattern was progressing.
It kept motivating him for a long time. Hell, Mark was willing to admit that it motivated him now, as he watched his potatoes for any sign of failure or rot.
Engineering worked for him because of the visual, physical element. Botany too--there was something he could grasp there, with plants and growth rates and the pretty, pretty math that supported the work. And Mark loved math. He kept taking math as his electives, to the point where the Math Department tried to convince him to go for the major, but Mark was already neck deep with the sciences during his undergraduate work and didn't want to take an extra semester to lock it down. Sometimes he thought that the math saved him--the papers and the reading and the citations and the annotations were brutal, sometimes so overwhelming that he had to go for a run or get drunk or find a cute person of whatever gender he could hit on, and get the words out of his head for awhile.
He came back to them, eventually. And he had help, support, plenty of resources to get him through. But the math was accessible when the words weren't, and he had sufficient wiggle room to be able to rely on math instead of writing as he completed his undergraduate and graduate coursework.
And here he was, Mark Watney of Mars with no handy lizard-horse to take him to some sexy space royalty and maybe some food that wasn't fucking salisbury steak. (Goddamn you, Martinez, and your obsession with midwestern American dinner staples.)
By the time it became clear that NASA was a real possibility, and not just a pipe dream from his childhood or an ongoing joke with his buddies at the lab about what they wanted to do when they grew up, the whole dyslexia deal hadn't really been a thing. It just was. Mark had ways to compensate, he had found avenues to accommodate his needs and preferences. It wasn't something he mentioned on the job, or in his application to NASA. It just wasn't relevant.
And when it turned out he was actually going to be a freaking astronaut dyslexia was so far from his mind it could have been on another planet.
But here he was. On another planet. With fifteen thousand books, a tension headache, and the most epic boredom ever to exist. Robinson Crusoe might have had his problems, but he didn't have to worry about a change in pressure that would suck all the air from his lungs and leave him to die without a tombstone. Or weeping virgins. Of any gender.
Robinson Crusoe wasn't the king of anything, though, so Mark figured he at least had it better in one column.
He got up, did his stretches, counted the potatoes, ate a few more almonds, drank a liter of water with electrolytes, put on London Calling and went back to his book.
John Carter rocked out his new strength and agility on Mars-Barsoom in a loincloth (Mark was imagining him in a loincloth), and got his Fight Club on with the Tharks.
"King of Barsoom," he muttered. Nah, it sounded awkward. King of Mars was better. Suddenly Mark remembered there was a movie. There was a movie. He pulled up the networked storage and searched--oh, man, he and Chris Beck were going to have a talk about Beck's taste in movies and particularly science fiction, but that talk would happen on a day when the King of Mars wasn't trying to parse Edgar Rice Burroughs' fever dream. Mark pulled it up, drank some more electrolytes, debated taking his shirt off, and watched a very, very pretty John Carter try to deal with Mars.
Mark kinda thought he adapted better. At least he could feed himself. John could barely walk.
But it wasn't a competition.
Because there was only one King of Mars. And that was Mark.