The Martian, by Andy Weir
Published: 28 August 2014
Rating: Turned On (Potato-powered Phenomenon)
Mark Watney is a man on a mission to Mars. He’s by no means the first person to set foot on the Red Planet, but he was supposed to be the last, as part of a group of astronauts, to leave it. After a storm separates him from his group, they presume him dead and head for home. But Watney isn’t dead, and he only has enough food for 300 days, which he must spend in a habitat designed to last 31 days, until a possible rescue, in more than four years. So yeah. He’s screwed.
Andy Weir’s The Martian sees Watney stranded on Mars with nothing but NASA’s greatest minds and his own botany and engineering skills to keep him alive until the next mission to the Red Planet arrives. The sheer direness of his situation throws the story forward, but it’s Watney’s sense of humour that characterises the science (“There, I saved myself 3.6 pirate-ninjas.”) and moves it above and beyond the monotonous realism of the likes Robin Crusoe, which is a natural comparison. Watney’s log entries, which largely tell the story, are a joy to read, because no matter how dire his situation becomes, he cracks jokes in the face of mortal danger like John McClane laughs off the threats of sharply dressed German terrorists and collapsing buildings. Yippee-ki-yay indeed.
Interestingly, man setting foot on Mars is that next big step in space exploration that feels possible. Weir does not have to dash far into the future to make The Martian a possibility, and this almost-realism beckons comparisons with Robinson Crusoe, or any other story that pits one man against impossible odds, like I Am Legend. But where others trip up is in the dreary and depressing execution, the inevitability of a defeated ending. One man cannot make a difference. But in The Martian, Weir goes in the other way, and well.
He does a superb job of rousing support for the underdog, because the reader really wants Watney to survive. When he finally manages to contact NASA, the whole world hears about his situation and rallies to support a rescue mission. The thought that one man is alone on an entire planet 10s of thousands of miles away strikes an uncomfortably lonely chord among humanity, and the reader is not immune, which makes the payoff all the more satisfying (“‘Iron Man, Commander. Iron Man.’”).
The Martian’s tension is its most surprising trait. Weir crafts the tension and pace so well that it is easy to forgo sleep for one more chapter. A novel about Mars, the science of creating a potato garden on a planet with no atmosphere, and disco music, should be terrible, but it’s far from it. The Martian is spectacularly funny and nerve-wracking, and not to be missed.