Andy Weir’s “The Martian,” has received a tremendous amount of positive hype since it was first published in 2011, and lots of great reviews, even from scientists and astronauts.
It’s all well deserved. Instead of being a boring, techy tome (sorry, but some science based fiction bogs down in the science and forgets to entertain) it is a riveting, barnburner of a story.
Mark Watney is an astronaut that has been accidentally left behind on Mars after a sandstorm threatens to strand the Ares3 crew millions of miles from home. He has been seriously injured and the other crewmembers think he is dead, so they leave the surface under orders from Control.
When he comes to, he assesses his situation and declares that he is in deep trouble. Two words come to mind: ingenuity – the quality of being clever as well as inventive, and resilience – the capacity to recover quickly from hardship. Watney never blames the crew for abandoning him, and instead, attacks his problems head on.
The best sci-fi throws real people into a strange world where they must use skills from their own world to cope and/or deal with the new. “The Martian” is a cross between the TV shows MacGyver and Survivor. As if just being alone on the planet isn’t challenging enough, he has to work out his oxygen supply and food supply and somehow let Earth know that he’s not dead yet. Being the first and only Martian is not as much fun as you might think.
Watney knows that the next mission to Mars won’t arrive for another four years and that he has to travel 2000 miles to get to the rendezvous point. He has to find a way to stay alive that long. That is, if he doesn’t blow himself up before the food runs out. Anything can go wrong, including explosions and leaks and not having access to the guys at NASA. Yes, even computer access goes down. Imagine being cut off from the guys that keep thousands of possible solutions to any given dilemma only a keystroke away.
Complete silence outside the Habitat. Isolation. Like every other pioneer in the wilderness, every decision Mark Watney makes is about life and death. We groan at his harrowing setbacks, gasp/laugh at the outrageous solution to growing his own food, admire his ingenuity at solving space/sleep/water issues. “The Martian” is a celebration of man's resilience in the face of intolerable hardship.
When Weir (an actual scientist and software engineer) wrote “The Martian,” he worked out planet positions and shuttle orbits to support his storyline. Andy Weir tested many of the decisions made by his astronaut so that Watney could realistically work his way through the challenges. If the science wasn’t right, it didn’t go onto the pages.
Weir gives Watney a belief system in “The Martian” that makes it all work. Watney has an outrageous sense of humor and an “I can fix this” attitude, no matter what is thrown at him. If he’s alive, he has another chance to get it right. If he can get past listening to old disco songs left behind by his crew mates, and do without even the fake coffee, he can survive anything.
Of course, Watney has the right credentials (engineering and botanist degrees) to do the job, making the book that much more successful. There is no high school student solving the complex problems in this book just by virtue of being a computer whiz. But, duct tape – that heavy, cloth backed, silver tape that plumbers and electricians use so often – plays a great role in the book. Gotta love that legitimately, a low-tech item could save expensive equipment from complete failure.
There is strong language in response to some of his situations, so don’t read “The Martian” if you are offended by four letter words. It’s not pervasive, but it’s there, and appropriately used.
A movie based on the book, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, was released in 2015. Happily, it was astounding.