The Martian, by Andy Weir. New York: Crown, 2014. 384 pp. $24 (hardcover).
Reviewed by Ari Armstrong
Imagine you’re on a mission on Mars. Your space suit, not to mention your body, was punctured by an antenna blown loose by a raging sandstorm. Luckily, although the blow knocked you unconscious, the blood from your wound helped seal the hole, so you didn’t die from lack of oxygen. Now that you’re awake and moving again, you realize an unfortunate fact: Your entire crew, reasonably thinking you died and facing the dangerous storm, took off in the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) and left you behind. You are now totally alone on a planet hostile to life. Your food supplies are running low, and you have no obvious way to communicate with Earth, much less to get home. What do you do?
If you’re Mark Watney, the main character of Andy Weir’s near-futuristic, science fiction novel The Martian, you carefully think about what you need to do to stay alive and get rescued, and then you methodically do it. Watney’s training as a botanist and a mechanical engineer gives him the skills he needs to survive; and his fierce desire to live, his fortitude, and his quirky sense of humor give him the strength of will to do it.
Fortunately, Watney’s own mission and various other missions to Mars have left a number of important tools at his disposal. He has a reasonably well-stocked Hab (basically, a giant pressurized tent), some solar cells, several functional space suits, two functional rovers, duct tape, glue, and various other machines and items. Oh, and he has some live potatoes, which his crew was supposed to have cooked for Thanksgiving dinner. Don’t forget the potatoes! They become crucially important in Watney’s efforts to survive.
The story revolves around Watney coming up with clever ways to keep sucking air and consuming calories, then figuring out how to travel some two thousand miles across the cold Martian landscape to the site of a future Mars landing. Meanwhile, NASA and Watney’s crewmates eventually learn he’s still alive, so they seek to communicate with him, to help him remain alive, and to rescue him. So although Watney is the dominant figure of the story, Weir populates his novel with other colorful figures on Earth and in the ship traveling back to Earth.
Two things stand out about the novel. First is Watney’s steadfast dedication to using his mind to stay alive, if he can. That’s not to say that Watney never gets depressed about his situation or never contemplates the worst; he is fully aware of the thin strands by which his life hangs. Second is the realism of the novel. Although I am not a scientist, every aspect of the story line seemed plausible to me. It is the most realistic science fiction story I’ve ever read.
My only minor complaint about the novel pertains to its ending. It ends abruptly, without wrapping up the loose ends, such as what happens to the ship headed to Earth and to the characters on Earth, and what becomes of the discoveries Watney makes on Mars. Weir concludes the story without giving the reader a chance to savor its outcome. And then Weir tacks on a “moral,” claiming (through Watney) that “every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out.” That message doesn’t arise naturally from the context of the story, it’s not true to Watney’s voice, and it happens to be false. (Humans often help each other out, but they often do the opposite, and their actions in either case are not determined by “instincts.”)
As to the cinematic future of this excellent work, as Alexandra Alter reports for the Wall Street Journal, “The novel, which began as a self-published science-fiction serial [in 2012], is shaping up to be an international hit, with publication rights sold in 21 countries and a movie in the works.”1 According to Space.com, Ridley Scott will direct the film, and Matt Damon will portray Watney; the project already has a release date of November 25, 2015.2 I think Watney would be proud of Weir’s efforts and of his resulting success—he has earned it.
And maybe someday, in real life, a person now reading The Martian will take that bold first step onto the Red Planet.