Whenever I pick up a book, if the central character describes his situation using a word I wouldn’t use in front of my mother, I normally close the book, and put it away.
Not the case here. The first sentence grabs you because in no uncertain terms, the character, in this case, Astronaut Mark Watney, knows his back is against the wall. Left behind on the planet Mars because it’s assumed he’s dead from a storm, Mark’s evaluation of his situation is right on the money. He’s alone, he’s 40 million miles from earth, the nearest human beings are tens of thousands of miles away (and headed the wrong way), he has no means of communication, and is at the mercy of his technology. And even if he manages to keep everything running, sooner or later, he’ll starve to death.
But with the odds stacked against him, Watney decides he isn’t going to let Mars kill him without a fight. He comes up with a plan, and begins the task of survival.
When I first heard of The Martian, I assumed another Robinson Caruso on Mars (a good 1950s movie directed by Bryon Haskins). But that’s not the case. Except for the dirt, there isn’t a lot Mars has to offer Watney in terms of survival. He set out to grow crops, restore communications, and find ways to stay alive.
On Earth, there’s more than a little political fallout when they realize Watney is alive. Satellite flyovers of the base camp show things placed back in order, and evidence of movement. A desperate rescue plan is mounted and fails. It isn’t until an loner mathematician and a former astronaut team up and figure out a way for Watney’s crew to rescue him themselves, that even looks like Mark has a shot.
You’ve probably seen the movie, but if you haven’t, I won’t ruin it for you. Invariably, there will be comparisons between the book and the movie. While the book goes into a lot more depth, the movie still works extremely well. I would say the book and the movie complement each other.
Watney is a pretty interesting character, the perfect person to do everything possible to survive. He’s smart and willing to do the work it takes. Rather than letting problems overwhelm him, he figures out a way to work them. He is a bit of a smart ass, but that’s what helps keep him sane.
One thing I liked about him is he never loses his sense of wonder, in the book or in the movie. One of the most incredible scenes in the movie has him sitting on a small hill, looking across Mars, and just awed by the vista. The book catches the same sense.
Now, I’m what you would call a “hard” science-fiction fan. I like hardware and the science that frames the story. So, being an astronomer, I was constantly checking facts and so forth. As far as hardware goes, there isn’t a thing in the book that isn’t sitting around waiting to be bolted together. The science is first rate with one exception, and that’s the storm that marooned Watney. The atmosphere of Mars is so thin, it probably wouldn’t get that bad. That said, Weir knew this and was smart enough to realize that if he was going to go out on a limb, he’d admit it.
One of the things I have trouble with is how many publishing companies turned the book down. Eventually, Weir self published it and was giving it away. Then one day, he woke up to find he had a bestseller on his hands.
In my humble opinion, let’s make Andy Weir the heir to Clarke, Heinlein, and Bradbury. He’s got the eye of an engineer, the understanding of scientist, and the heart of a poet.