The Martian – Andy Weir
When we’re introduced to our hero Mark Watney, he’s found himself in a dire situation. He’s the botanist and mechanical engineer of Ares III, the third manned mission to Mars. Six days after landing, a particularly ferocious storm forced an early abort; but as the crew headed for their ascent vehicle, Mark was hit by flying debris and catapulted out of sight. Believing him dead, the other astronauts departed without him. But Mark is still alive on the surface Mars, with limited supplies, and no way to contact Earth or his crewmates – and even if he could, what can be done to rescue him?
At first, the format – Mark’s first-person log entries – looks like it’s going to be a Cast Away-style story, where the reader has only Mark for company as he works to ensure he survives long enough to meet Ares IV (which is due to arrive in four years’ time). In fact, things turn out to be a bit more complex; we eventually cut back to Earth, where the people working on the Ares project realise on their own that Mark is still alive. From there, everyone starts coming up with various plans for Mark’s survival and rescue: some of them fail, some are dismissed when a better option comes along – and pretty much everything involves serious improvisation and jury-rigging on both sides. This is Apollo 13 on an even grander scale.
I listened to this story on audiobook; it was fairly long at just under 11 hours, but I was enthralled throughout, desperate to find out if Mark would escape Mars or not. Andy Weir generally manages to find a good balance between having things go too smoothly and having Mark beset with a life-threatening emergency every single chapter. Things do go seriously wrong on a number of occasions – creating good tension, as sometimes the reader is made aware when something is about to go wrong – but the calmer moments are still compelling: even when Mark is able to solve a problem the way he intends, the appeal comes from the inventive and determined ways that he does so. Occasionally a solution will seem to go slightly too well to make things really tense, but it’s not a significant flaw.
Linked to this is the fact that the science in this book is handled brilliantly. There’s a lot of detail involving technology, physics, chemistry and the Martian environment, and it all feels real – even technology which quite doesn’t exist yet feels grounded in reality. While some similar stories, like those by Stephen Baxter, can get bogged down in their technobabble, this one is presented in a more accessible manner: you’ll probably learn a lot reading this. And whenever a problem is encountered, it always feels like something that could and would happen, caused either by flaws in the technology or understandable human error: for example, early on Mark inadvertently fills his habitation module with highly flammable hydrogen due to not being a particularly experienced chemist.
Mark Watney himself is a wonderful protagonist. With his resourcefulness, engineering skills, and dogged determination to stay alive, he’s the ideal person to be dropped into this situation – but he’s far from a stoic hero, or an angsting brooder. I wouldn’t have expected this to be an especially funny story, but it is: other characters back on Earth note that Mark is a wise-cracker, and he lives up to that reputation with some hilarious moments and sarcastic comments throughout, lightening the mood even in his practically hopeless situation.
I can’t remember the last time I was so sorry to reach the end of a book. The Martian is one of the absolute best stories I’ve read/listened to in a while; anyone with an interest in space travel at least should definitely check it out. Rating: 5/5!