If you haven’t already heard or seen countless reviews raving about The Martian then you’re reading the wrong newspapers, surfing the wrong websites or hanging around the wrong water coolers. And guess what? They’re all right on the button. This is one of the most insanely addictive books I have read for years, and I really mean for years. It was glued to my hands. Don’t even bother reading this review, just go and buy it now, strap yourself into your comfiest chair with a pot of coffee next to you and enjoy the ride. Then come back and see if you agree with me.
Mark Watney is an astronaut privileged with being part of Ares III, the third manned mission to Mars. Part engineer, part botanist, he was selected as much for his personality as his intellect, his sardonic sense of humour helping to bond and calm teammates during times of crisis. Unfortunately he’s also one of the unluckiest beings on the red planet. Mere days after landing the mission is aborted due to a storm, forcing the crew to evacuate from their habitat to the lander vehicle for immediate take-off. En route a detached antenna striked and impales Mark, separating him from the group and causing him to become lost in the swirling sands. The damage to his suit disrupts its signalling ability – the crew now reading zero life signs. After brief but extremely painful deliberation they realise they have no choice but to leave him for dead.
But he’s not dead…
A combination of physics, NASA engineering and extreme coincidence leaves Mark able to return to the habitat they abandoned and, after some minor panic and disaster, restore everything to working order. There’s a minor problem though. He has food. He has water. He has oxygen. But he has enough to last for roughly one year, and the next scheduled mission will be there three years after that. He’s screwed. He’s one tenacious Martian though and refuses to give up, utilising every ounce of problem-solving power he has. NASA doesn’t send idiots into space and Watney’s resourcefulness is the most vital life-saving tool he has. Soon his life coalesces into two distinct priorities – restore some form of communication with Earth and figure out how the hell he’s going to outlast his supplies and avoid unexpected catastrophes for the next 1,300 or so days.
Right, I’m not even going to pretend to find fault with this book. Andy Weir is a bloody masterful writer, dragging you right into the cabin with Watney so it feels like you’re peering over his shoulder at every turn. You’re jumping out of your seat at every minor victory and covering your eyes and groaning when the fates fuck with him. And despite the very technical nature of the problems and solutions involved, Weir takes great pains to make sure it’s accessible to the lay reader as well as interesting to those with some knowledge of the science and mechanics in question.
Comparisons to previous works, especially movies, are easy to make. Yes, it’s Apollo 13 meets Castaway, no doubt about it. It’s MacGyver in space for sure. Hell, anything involving constant peril and/or isolation could be added to the mix. But in the end it’s a truly original story told in a wonderfully engaging way. I honestly can’t think of a single person I know who wouldn’t get something out of this book, whether from its scientific grounding, its sheer enjoyability as a page-turner or from the over-riding message of persistence, endurance and hope running through it from start to finish. It says a lot that Chris Hadfield, star astronaut formerly of the ISS, gave it his own ringing endorsement.
In short, books like The Martian are rare and precious. Read it now before Hollywood does something horrible with the movie rights like giving it to Micheal Bay…
Note – I have since discovered that Weir was initially given the cold shoulder by publishers and released the title for free on his website. Word of mouth led him to create a Kindle (bleurgh) edition for $0.99 and only then did it attract a deal from Crown. I love this, yet more proof that free availability leads to bigger and better things.