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Review: The Martian

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The Martian
by Andy Weir
Crown, 2014
hardcover, 384 pp.
ISBN 978-0-8041-3902-1

It’s a familiar science fiction story: Astronauts go to Mars. Something bad happens. They struggle to survive and get home. Variations of that tale have been in print and on film for years; recall, for example, Hollywood’s dueling films about Mars missions in peril released months apart in 2000, Mission to Mars and Red Planet. But just because a concept is familiar doesn’t mean it can’t be done in new and refreshing ways.

That’s the case of the “new” novel The Martian by Andy Weir. (“New” is in quotes since the book was previously self-published online; it’s now being released in print and electronic editions by a major publisher, Crown.) The titular Martian is Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut who was part of the third human mission to land on Mars. Six days into a month-long stay, the crew evacuates when a massive dust storm whips through the landing site. Watney, though, is left behind, separated from his crewmates as they rushed to their ascent vehicle; they presume he’s been killed.

What sets The Martian apart is less its characters, though, than its technical rigor. It is very much hard science fiction, with science and technology firmly rooted in reality.

Watney’s is alive, though, but in an awful predicament. With the lander gone, he’s stuck at the landing site. There is a habitat with life support and food, but not enough until another mission can rescue him. There is an ascent vehicle sent ahead for the next mission, but it’s thousands of kilometers away on another part of Mars. Moreover, the storm knocked out the habitat’s communications system, so there’s no way for him to contact Earth, or vice versa.

Weir tells Watney’s story primarily through mission logs that Watney writes as he documents his efforts to stay alive and figure out a way to get home. Watney is both a talented engineer and a botanist; both come in handy in his quest to survive. He’s also a bit of a smartass, a personality trait that makes him a more realistic and sympathetic character, interspersing his accounts of survival with a touch of gallows humor. It’s several chapters into the book before we encounter other characters—NASA officials and other trying to rescue him, and his crewmates on their way back to Earth—who appear in more conventional third-person narrative; they don’t appear as fully fleshed out as Watney, though.

What sets The Martian apart is less its characters, though, than its technical rigor. The Martian is very much hard science fiction, with science and technology firmly rooted in reality. Weir, through Watney’s logs and other narrative, isn’t afraid to delve deeply into topics from orbital mechanics to life support systems to spacecraft engineering. That makes the book all the more realistic, and compelling, for those with sufficient technical backgrounds to appreciate this. Even those who don’t, though, can still appreciate Watney’s efforts to survive without getting bogged down.

That attention to technical accuracy would be largely meaningless unless the book was a good story, and, fortunately, it is. The Martian is a story that’s hard to put down as you wonder how Watney will use his experience and what limited resources he has to find a way to survive as he encounters new challenges and setbacks; the attention to technical detail makes is all the more compelling for those who know enough about spaceflight to appreciate those details. The film rights to the book have been sold, so a version of the story may appear on the big screen in a few years, but it’s hard to imagine that the movie version would be better than the book.