The most surprising thing about The Martian isn’t that it’s going to be a major Ridley Scott film starring [typecast?] astronaut Matt Damon in the leading role. Or that the novel’s author, Andy Weir, wrote some 350 page of extremely technical aerospace detail with little more than Google research. Or that he published the book himself through Amazon, where it is currently (having since been picked up by a major publisher) tooling around in the Top 10 science-fiction list. No, what’s most surprising about The Martian is that in spite of its Cinderella-story creation and enthusiastic technicality, in spite of its corny humor and disorganized pacing, in spite of the fact that it’s primarily narrated by one person who spends all his time completely alone, this is one of the most unique and excellent novels I’ve read in recent memory.
“The Martian,” in this case, is Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut (slash botanist slash engineer) who gets stranded on the red planet when a dust storm-related accident separates him from his crew, who assume him dead and have to get the hell out of Dodge (i.e. abort their mission). When Watney comes to—saved by a fluke congealed blood situation worthy of a reverse Darwin Award—he is left with the daunting task of figuring out how to survive on an uninhabitable planet until his only possible rescue: the next Mars mission, in four years.
On sheer premise, The Martian is a worst nightmare on par with Sandra Bullock spaceship-hopping her way to survival in 2013’s Gravity. Finding oneself presumed dead while actually stuck very much alive on an empty planet has to be near the top of the “oh crap” list, sort of like being lost at sea multiplied by a billion. Watney’s first log entry on Mars sums things up rather perfectly: “I’m pretty much fucked. That’s my considered opinion. Fucked.”
But his despair soon gives way to a boyish humor—”What do you know? I’m in command [now]”—and an unflappable optimism powered by some combination of survival instinct and scientific method. (Also because curling into a ball and mumbling “shitshitshitshit” for a year would make for a boring, though inarguably understandable, novel.) Resigned to his indefinite tenure on the fourth rock from the sun, Watney immediately sets about addressing what would for most seem insurmountable obstacles:
I have no way to communicate with Hermes [spaceship where the crew is] or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days. If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of these things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
What follows are a series of highly entertaining and extremely wonky logs, as Watney develops plan after plan to address the myriad ways in which he might perish on Mars. Throughout, Weir’s/Watney’s writing is clean and breezy, while still being impossibly detailed when it comes to the specifics of his work. Example:
The regulator uses freeze-separation to sort out the gasses. When it decides there’s too much oxygen, it starts collecting air in a tank and cooling it to 90 kelvin. That makes the oxygen turn to liquid, but leaves the nitrogen (condensation point: 77K) still gaseous. Then it stores the O2. But I can’t get it to do that for hydrogen, because hydrogen needs to be below 21K to turn liquid. And the regulator just can’t get temperatures that low. Dead end.
Trust me though, the science is interesting. And while I feel compelled to note that my praise of Weir’s research comes from a place of having no effing idea whether he got it all right—in a Reddit AMA, he said the aforementioned dust storm wouldn’t have been possible on Mars IRL, and niggling Amazon reviewers suggest The Martian has its fair share of scientific glitches—it honestly doesn’t matter. What Weir has created is a fun accessible piece of fiction that will resonate with all sorts of readers—science-fiction fans or no—so long as they like adventure, nerdery, and unflinching humor in the face of human mortality.
Because most important in this story is Watney himself, a consistently pleasant narrator whose jocular attitude can be surprising considering the number of times he goes to bed without having worked out a solution upon which his life depends. Watney eventually tracks down the crew’s media inventory and spends off hours in the Hab watching reruns of 70s sitcoms and reading Agatha Christie novels. When NASA finally figures out that he is alive—an early turning point in the novel, from which it only gets better and better—an official (on Earth) gravely wonders what the stranded astronaut could be thinking: “He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?”
Subsequently, from Watney:
LOG ENTRY: SOL 61
How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.
It’d be fair, or at least not unfair, to say that we’re in the middle of a new space age. Outside of SpaceX and Elon Musk and Lance Bass: Possible Astronaut, the aughts and twenty-teens have brought with them Star Wars and Star Trek revivals, Wall-E, Elysium, Gravity, Interstellar, Prometheus, Ender’s Game, Guardians of the Galaxy, and a highly unnecessary Chronicles of Riddick sequel. The Martian seems in some sense a culmination of this renewed (or perhaps ever-present) intergalactic interest, a comedic Cast Away that’s also improbably concerned with scientific realism. A book that was just begging for a film adaptation. A main character that was just begging for A-list representation. Some 35 years after Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we were ready for a funny science-fiction novel, a complicated and zany space adventure seen through the eyes of someone smart enough to grow food without soil, and silly enough to chat NASA rudimentary boob emoticons. We were ready for Mark Watney.
TITLE: The Martian
AUTHOR: Andy Weir
PAGES: 369 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: The Egg
SORTA LIKE: Cast Away meets
FIRST LINE: “I’m pretty much fucked.”