Title: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Published: First published 2012; published by Crown on 11 February 2014
Genre: science fiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Mark Watney is on the Ares 3 Mars mission with 5 other crew members when they’re forced to abort because of a devastating sandstorm. But before Mark can get to safety, he’s swept away by a dust storm and left injured and unconscious. His biomonitor is damaged, so the crew have every reason to believe he’s dead and are forced to leave without him.
Mark wakes up and manages to save himself, but finds himself in rather bleak circumstances:
I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one 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 fucked.
In addition to this he’s also working in very delicate circumstances, in a very hostile environment, so the slightest mistake or oversight could kill him too.
But none of it deters Mark. He immediately focuses on survival, finding unexpected solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. His goal is to survive until the next Mars mission. In four years.
Meanwhile, at NASA, an undervalued engineer notices that the satellite picture of the Ares 3 site show unexplained signs of movement…
This sounds like it could be extremely boring – one lone man going about the very practical business of surviving on Mars without even the drama of aliens or something? Sounds too much like a documentary. But it works. Not just works, actually – it’s also interesting, tense, exciting, funny, and emotional. It doesn’t need aliens because surviving alone on Mars is insane enough. It does drag at times, but it still manages to be a more entertaining read than many books that have a lot more to work with.
So, what makes it good? Mark’s character plays a huge role in that. One of the reasons he has a chance of surviving on Mars is that he’s an amazing problem solver, and a large portion of the book is devoted to the mission logs where he describes how he survives. This sounds like one of the most potentially boring parts, but even as someone who hates the rigour of hard sf, I found it very interesting and impressive. He specifically states that he’ll explain how Mars missions work just in case a layman reads his logs, and he sticks to that style throughout.
Mark is a botanist and engineer, so it’s not long before he’s figured out how make water FROM SCRATCH and turn his habitat into a potato farm. He sorts out his air supply and modifies his rover for long-distance travel. On the downside, he also turns his habitat into a bomb and causes an explosion by breathing, but that’s all just part of the thrills of life on Mars. In many ways, this book provides a basic education on how complicated and dangerous space travel is.
I couldn’t tell you how accurate it all is, but it certainly gives the impression of being completely accurate, which, for sf fans like myself, is really all that matters. Admittedly I didn’t always understand exactly what Mark was doing, but the how and why are easy to understand and that’s good enough. Yes, there’s a ton of science and maths, but Mark keeps it manageable.
The other thing that helps Mark survive and make the book readable is his sense of humour. He’s always making little jokes or framing his life-threatening endeavours in amusing ways. It keeps the tone light, keeps Mark motivated, and is often laugh-out-loud funny. I love how he complains that he’s stuck with disco music and crappy 70s sitcoms for entertainment, and how he explains that, according to international law, he is in fact a space pirate. This kind of stuff is is essential. His story could be very depressing and the realism of it suggests that Mark could die before being rescued. The humour saves it from that fate.
It could also be bogged down by Mark’s emotional and physical suffering but, thankfully, there’s very little of that. Most of Mark’s narrative is made up of mission logs, which means he chooses how to describe his experience. He focuses on his methods of survival, throws in a lot of perfectly justified bitching, and makes jokes, but he very rarely feels sorry for himself or wallows in the wretchedness of his situation. If anything, he survives because he’s the kind of person who doesn’t fall into that trap. It’s quite possible that he gets depressed and maudlin, but he doesn’t make the reader suffer through that too.
Another thing that makes this a good book narratively, is that it’s very well paced. We alternate nicely between dilemmas and triumphs, between great worry and huge relief. When Mark’s narrative starts to get a bit tiring, we suddenly go back to Earth where an observant engineer realises that Mark is still alive. That adds another dimension to the story, and from then on we move back and forth between NASA and Mars. It becomes quite a page-turner.
It did drag for a bit in the middle though. When I hit the halfway point I was so ready for Mark to be rescued, and I was a bit depressed by how much book I still had to get through. After a while though, the story climbs out of the rut and gets interesting again, as we move closer to what will either be Mark’s rescue or his death.
There is one thing I wondered about that the novel only mentions in passing – the public’s reaction to the cost of saving Mark. It costs tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to save one man (albeit a highly intelligent and skilled man whose experience constitutes unprecedented research). On the one hand, it’s an incredible story and people all over the world are following closely and hoping for a happy ending. I was hoping desperately for a happy ending too. On the other hand, it seems easier to get money and resources for this than, say, public health care, housing for the poor, environmental protection, etc. It’s mentioned that people start asking how much is too much, but that’s really all the book has to say about it.
Admittedly though, that issue might have hindered rather than helped what is already a (mostly) excellent story. I’ve heard that the movie rights have been sold and I think this would be fantastic on the big screen – all the tension and humour of the book, with a stunning visual component. That’d also complete the indie-dream that is this book – it started out as a free story on the author’s website, then he sold a Kindle version on Amazon for 99c, it got picked up by a major publisher, and film rights were sold. How awesome is that? But deservedly so. Well done Andy Weir 🙂