BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars after being left for dead by his crew.
PROS: Excellent premise; great characterization of Watney, who is smart, funny and immediately likable; engrossing; relies heavily on realistic science; optimism pervades the entire novel.
CONS: The science and math may put off some readers unaccustomed to sf.
BOTTOM LINE: A smart, thrilling and ultimately uplifting story grounded in realistic science.
As a science fiction reader, it’s easy to get used to the idea of wild, far-future science fictional concepts appearing in fiction. (I’m looking at you, FTL and post-humanism!) So much so that it’s just as easy to forget why you’re reading science fiction in the first place: because science is cool. That’s as true for the science of today as it is for the imagined science of the future.
It’s been a long while since I read a science fiction book grounded in realistic, current-day science. That is perhaps why I found Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian, so refreshing. Well, that and the gripping premise, which concerns an astronaut named Mark Watney who is abandoned on Mars after being left for dead by the crew of the Ares 3 mission. With minimal resources on hand, Watney must overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to provide himself with food, water, and a breathable atmosphere — all the resources he’ll need to sustain his own life on Mars — beyond those provided by the month-long Martian expedition that was unceremoniously cut short. And those resources will eventually run out, so he also has to figure out a way to communicate with NASA back on Earth to let them know “Hey, I’m not dead yet!” What proceeds from there is a sort of “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” except there’s nobody else he encounters on the unforgiving planet.
The beauty of the book’s execution is two-fold. First, there’s the level-headed and intelligent approach Watney gives to his predicament, which starts on the very first page. Everyone knows about he extreme dangers of space travel and this setup is about as grim as it can be. Yet much to Weir’s credit, there’s an inspirational optimism that pervades the novel and a notable lack of despondency in Watney’s first-person journal entries, made all the more notable by the dire consequences in which Watney finds himself. It’s impressive how quickly I began rooting for him to succeed, not just because of the sympathy elicited for his situation, but because Weir’s portrayal of the man makes him immediately and immensely likable. Watney’s smart, seemingly resistant to despair, and has a great sense of humor.
The other good thing about the book’s execution is that it never gets boring. There is one part a few chapters in where it looks like readers are just going to get 300-plus pages of engineering applications, but before that ever gets stale, Weir mixes it up by introducing another thread revolving around the team of NASA engineers. At that point, the dramatic tension is pushed way higher because NASA doesn’t even know he’s alive. These other character portrayals (including Watney’s other crew members) are perhaps not as well drawn as Watney, but they don’t really need to be. It’s enough to know the NASA pecking order, which is depicted well enough, and where each of them stands on the tough decisions to be made by mission control. The real benefit of the other characters in the book is the dramatic tension they bring.
Science fiction writers are often chided for taking liberties with real science, but I doubt Weir will suffer those same criticisms. His depiction of realistic science seems to ground the entire novel, whether Watney is demonstrating his ingenuity by scrounging available material to provide for his basic needs, or whether the NASA engineers are devising ways to overcome any number of issues (and there are many). There’s a fair amount of science in The Martian (physics, mathematics, chemistry, botany, etc.) that may turn off more science-averse readers, but most of that is explained in a straightforward way that Watney often summarizes in laymen’s terms.
What’s terrific about The Martian is that it is smart, at times nail-biting, realistic and ultimately an uplifting story about what mankind can accomplish, even when things don’t go as smoothly as planned.