The Martian by Andy Weir
Published: 2014, Crown (Originally 2012)
Genre: Adult Science Fiction
I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Earth. I’m in a Habitat designed to last 31 days. If the Oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death. So yeah. I’m screwed.
An unexpectedly powerful dust storm causes the astronauts on NASA’s current Mars mission to abort their mission and head back to Earth. While following his crewmembers to their transport vehicle, Mark Watney comes into contact with flying debris, which causes him to fall back into the storm, his suit to rip, and his vitals to flatline. The rest of the crew assumes he’s dead and leaves for their return journey to Earth.
Their assumption proves to be incorrect, however, as Mark somehow survives. But now he’s stranded on the surface of Mars with no way to contact his crewmates or Earth and a minimal number of supplies. To survive for any amount of time, Mark must combine his knowledge of engineering and botany with more than a little ingenuity.
The Martian presents an alternate reality to our present, in which NASA has the means and funding to send fairly regular missions to Mars. NASA and space engineers have not only perfected various means of spacecraft to send humans to and from the surface of Mars, but have created shelters that allow humans to survive on the surface of Mars for many sols (Martian days) at a time. The possibilities that Weir presents here on space travel are certainly beyond what is currently being done, but they also sound incredibly plausible.
Despite scientific advances and the non-Earth locale, this is very much a survival story. Much of the story is related through Mark’s journal entries, which detail all of the challenges he encounters trying to survive on a surface that isn’t conducive to human life, and the variety of ways he’s forced to improvise to ensure his own survival. Mark’s background in engineering and botany give some credibility to many of his actions. At times, however, the circumstances feel a bit too contrived; the possible worst-case scenario will happen, followed by a “so crazy that it just might work” solution by Mark that generally does, in fact, work.
Mark’s entries in his official NASA worklog emphasize a lot of the sophisticated math and science that he uses to aid in his survival. This is definitely an example of a science fiction book that features some “hard science” and may lose some readers among all the technical details. As a counter to all the specialized knowledge, however, Mark is also very screwed and not afraid to joke about it in his entries. Which is understandable, considering he’s mostly writing these entries for posterity and as a personal reflection, since he understands the odds of him surviving and giving NASA his logs are incredibly slim. Mark’s sense of humor also prevents the novel from becoming too depressing or difficult to read. Because, really, the circumstances are against him in every way possible. Without the humor, this could easily have become little more than a depressing book that focused on the hard science aspects of space travel and survival.
The book also gains some more perspective from the occasional additional narrator. Mark remains firmly the protagonist and focus of the novel, but, once NASA is made aware of his survival, this is no longer simply one man’s struggle to survive. Instead, it enhances the scale of the conflict as it becomes a bigger story about the worldwide attempt to save Mark’s life. Both members of NASA and of Ares 3, the crew that abandoned Mark, are given the occasional narrative in this expanded story.
The Martian is a fascinating read, certain to entertain those interested in space travel, the more technical aspects of science fiction, and survival stories. Reading this story may present a bit more of a struggle for those not quite as interested in any (or all) of those three points mentioned above (like me). But this certainly is a thought-provoking story and it will be interesting to see what Weir writes next.
Rating: 3 stars