On the sixth day of the third manned mission to Mars everything went wrong. A planned 30-day mission was cut short and while everyone was rushing to the spaceship to escape disaster, one man was left behind, thought to be killed, and now left to figure out for himself how to survive until he can be rescued. That’s the premise of Andy Weir’s novel, “The Martian”, a great science fiction story that’s funny and thrilling and plausible.
In an unspecified near-future, NASA is sending regular manned missions to Mars, traveling nearly a year each way to spend 30 days on the surface. As each mission requires so much material just to survive, unmanned missions start sending supplies years in advance, even before the previous manned mission has returned.
Astronaut Mark Watney, a botanist and engineer, has to figure out how to use what’s been left behind from his mission and what he possibly can reach from other missions, not just to survive, but even to start communicating to let Earth know he’s not dead.
The narrative takes place solely from the point of view of Watney’s journals of his experience at first and later in standard third-person omniscient later on for scenes on Earth. It makes for a lively read and keeps us asking the question, Are we only reading his journals because he didn’t survive and it’s the only record we have?
Watney is himself a bit of a wise-ass who makes plenty of pop culture references and jokes. The language is salty, with many f-bombs sprinkled throughout, but other than that there’s little to upset the sensitive reader. The science and engineering is spot-on accurate to exisiting and soon-to-exist capabilities of NASA, i.e. stuff that’s already on the drawing boards for real Mars missions. In fact, the science may be a little too spot-on at times as once or twice I skimmed over elaborate explanations in order to keep moving.
Like Tom Hanks’ movie “Castaway”, “The Martian” raises interesting questions. Would I be able to survive in such extreme circumstances? If I were all alone on an entire planet with the closest human contact years away under the best-case scenario, how would I hold up mentally? To what lengths– and expense– should NASA and the whole planet really go in order to save one man? That last one is really the best question as it highlights the importance of every human life, that there is something inside of all of us that says that we should never abandon someone who can possibly be saved.
A bit like “Ready, Player One” meets “Castaway” meets “Survivorman” meets “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “The Martian” is well worth your time even if you’re not a super scifi geek.