It is no secret that I love science fiction. I walk, live, and breathe Philip K Dick, and that is not an overstatement. So after seeing the trailer of The Martian and falling to my knees in astonishment that maybe – just maybe – a film would not completely annihilate the image I had of a book, I downloaded a copy and read it in record time to get ahead of spoilers that would inevitably come along.
Voted Goodreads Best Science Fiction of the Year (2014) and written by a self proclaimed “space nerd” Andy Weir, this debut novel is a hard science fiction unlike any that has been released in recent years. Hard science fiction sticks relatively close to the constraints physics has in the real world; that means detailed martian maps and excludes faster than lightspeed travel and mind reading alien babies. Heavy in technology, metaphysics, and a whole lot o’ chemistry, The Martian rivals classics like the Rendezvous With Rama series (Arthur C. Clarke) with similar crew dynamics, space exploration, and clever detail.
The Martian is a story of human resilience and resourcefulness. Think resourcefulness that kicks in when a group of people lift a train off a passenger who forgot to mind the gap. Aron Ralston resilience. The story follows the unfortunate aftermath when an Ares 3 mission on Mars is cut short due to high winds, forcing the crew of astronauts to abort their mission only six days in. On the way back to the shuttle astronaut and botanist extraordinaire, Mark Watney, is speared by an antenna and thrown out of sight of his crew. They search in vain before deciding he must be dead and they leave him behind.
Mark grips to consciousness in his breached suit, completely alone, with the low oxygen sensor blaring wildly and sums up his situation and sense of humor in the first line of the book (the one that decided I would upgrade my kindle sample to an entire book download): “Well, I’m pretty much fucked.”
Yes. Yes he is.
With no way to communicate with Earth or his crew members, the bitter thought that no one knows he is alive starts to set in, and he finds the only feasible way of being rescued is to wait for the next Ares mission to arrive. Stocked with 300 liters of water, 400 days worth of meals, twelve potatoes, and other supplies left in the Hab he quickly does the maths and finds he has enough to survive 490 days.
The next Ares mission will not arrive for another 1412 days, four years.
Indeed, he is fucked.
Mostly told through a series of logs typed by an incredibly sympathetic protagonist (now the king of Mars), the story shows how he deals with death and a sudden disconnection from society- with persistent belly laughs.
The Martian is laced heavy with scientific jargon but Mark’s humor being peppered throughout adds a layer that transforms otherwise mundane details into enjoyable moments of the plot. The act of potato farming has never been so interesting before it was placed on Mars, especially as Mark mulls over ideas for “human fertilizer” that will nourish the project. While every decision he makes turns into a choice between life and death (and the occasional choice between reading or listening to disco to pass the static time), all hell breaks loose on Earth after a young woman at NASA surveys photos of the Ares 3 site and spots signs that Mark is alive. The world holds their breath as media coverage turns to watch what, if all goes wrong, could be the first man to die on Mars. As the world looks on and does what it can to support the lone astronaut some scenes are reminiscent of Cast Away with a hint of reality television as Mark fights unknown terrain that tries to kill him at every turn.
The Martian is a story about human connection and how far people will go to help each other just because we have the same basic instinct to survive, even when the odds are stacked against us. Occasionally the plot takes a look into the personal lives of Mark’s crewmates revealing odd ball relationships and loyal camaraderie, but I found these moments the least interesting and barely necessary. Blame that on me already finding a great character in Mark Watney. While the other characters were attempting to form shape in the story they served as little more than background noise while I waited to get back to who I actually wanted to know about – Mark.
One thing the departures from the main protagonist serve for is dialogue and action. Since a majority of the story is told from one perspective these segments of the book read differently because there are multiple characters and we catch up with what they know and what they can and cannot do to help get Mark back to Earth. Still, the best parts of the book are Mark’s ramblings.
Following huge films like Gravity and Interstellar, this science fiction becoming a bestselling book and upcoming film is not surprising. The massive following The Martian has managed to garner in praise and movie deals (with actual good actors) goes to show this book has a great story to tell. Matt Damon will bring out Mark Watney’s charming disposition on the big screen with Jessica Chastain playing Commander Lewis. With science fiction attracting an absurd amount of viewers and unearthing a new generation of disciples The Martian is bound to fall in favor, but I am glad I read the book first – it is always be better.