Themes Explored: survival, space travel, the psychology of being alone, science, botany, extreme conditions, endurance of the human spirit, faith, hope in the face of incredible odds, death, life, mechanical engineering, ingenuity, teamwork, mutiny, loyalty, mars exploration, colonization
Synopsis: Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there. After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate the planet while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded on Mars’ surface, completely alone, with no way to signal Earth that he’s alive — and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone years before a rescue could arrive. As he overcomes one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next, Mark begins to let himself believe he might make it off the planet alive – but Mars has plenty of surprises in store for him yet. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Review: Classic “hard” science fiction authors identified scientific trends and extended them to their logical conclusions. Excellent examples include Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Robert Heinlein Starship Troopers, and Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World. Recently, there has been a dearth of solid hard science fiction novels. Enter Any Weir and his take on Mars exploration. Originally serialized on his personal website, The Martian is a 21st century Robinson Crusoe style tale. Only the setting is Mars not some far flung island in the middle of an ocean. However, the opening scenario would never happen on Mars. The atmosphere is not strong enough to produce such a deadly storm. In real life, the magnitude storm described would be about as strong as me blowing on your shoulder. Regardless, it works as a quick way to set the stage for the rest of the novel.
The book follows Mark Watney quest for survival after he was left behind by his crew after a severe storm blew him off course. Watney survived his injuries and comes up with some ingenious ways to keep himself alive. Once NASA figures out that he is still alive, they end up embarking on increasingly desperate attempts to bring him back to Earth. Preferably alive, which necessitates reaching Mars again before Mark runs out of food. Not a great PR event for NASA. Watney’s desperation leads him to cultivating a potato farm and digging up Pathfinder, a probe that crashed on Mars in 1997. If you are ever stranded on Mars, make sure you know botany. It could literally save your life. Also, bring along something to clog your nose because the fertilizer will not be a pleasant smell.
Mark Watnery is an affable and likable protagonist. He possesses all the traits readers want in a leading man: bravery, book smarts, intelligence, courage, sarcastic wit, resourceful, and an engaging sense of humor. All of which is good considering most of the novel involves Mark talking to the reader. First person narratives are difficult to pull off, but Weir handles the format superbly. Watney never feels one one-dimensional or underdeveloped. He gives hope to all botany obsessed mechanical engineers. Other than Mark, most of the characters are not particularly well rounded. They all exist for the sole purpose of adding tension and hope to the narrative. Weir does a fantastic job escalating predicaments for Watney to think through and surmount.
The technical talk is quite fascinating. Apparently Weir camped out NASA asking people to go over the technical aspects and give feedback. About 98% of the science discussed in the book is accurate. Weir also focuses a lot on how things are accomplished. For instance, Watney talks about how he has to grow food. Then the next couple of paragraphs discuss how this is accomplished. Such as: “I have created 192 square meters of farmland and have 600 liters of water for the potatoes I’m about to plant, which should last me 200 Sols beyond my NASA rations.” Sols is merely a fancy ways of saying days. I appreciated the technical aspects of the story; too many authors forget to add the science in the science fiction genre. There are numerous passages dealing with astrophysics, chemistry, farming, nutrition, geology, and engineering. In the end, all science fields are connected.
The mood is lightened through Watney’s musings about being a space pirate and using a radioactive block to take a hot bath. Weir excels at creating a relationship between Watney and the reader. Via Watney’s logs, readers experience the mundane and terrifying parts of being stranded on an inhospitable planet: how to make water from scratch, how to create a bomb, food rationing, the terrifying prospect of living on a planet with only disco music, how to grow food, how to fertilize soil, how to survive when the habitat blows up, and coming to terms with being completely alone.
One thing that grounds the narrative in reality is Weir emphasizing human ingenuity over technology. There are no flying cars, talking robots, energy stung guns, or smart technological tools that solve everything in an instant. The story is theoretically set in the future but the technology is all familiar. There is no light-speed traveling space ships; everything takes a lot of time to accomplish. In this world, almost nothing works correctly on the first try. Watney and NASA make some costly mistakes that nearly trigger catastrophic events. Like real life when things fail they fail spectacularly. Instead of sitting around moping and waiting for robots to fix everything, everyone dusts themselves off and approach the problem from another angle. And this is what makes The Martian a success. Weir reminds his readers about the enduring human spirit and the importance of ingenuity.
From a technical standpoint the writing is not spectacular. Weir over utilizes the simple sentence and does not flesh out most of the supporting characters. First person narration does not usually allow for other perspectives; Weir gets around this issue by using third person for the portions of the narrative located on Earth. However, the story moves quickly and never slows down. The hits keep rolling; which is the strength of the novel. Weir includes enough details to keep the reader hooked and projecting beyond what is written on the page. Overall, The Martian is one of the best science fiction novels to hit the bookshelves in a long time. I highly recommend reading the book and seeing the movie. Both are excellent.
The Martian, Crown, 2014, ISBN: 9780804139021