The Martian - Andy Weir

Today could be summed up in dodge speak:


Much Reading.

Such, The Martian.

Much amaze.

Which is to say, I just finished Andy Weir's fantastic first novel, The Martian today. It was the kind of reading experience where you completely lose track of time. I remember eating lunch, picking up the book, and the next thing I knew I had read the last 150 pages. When I finally put the book down it was was dark outside. This is the kind of book that just begs to be binge read. You've been warned.

Almost all of the preview coverage I saw for The Martian included comparisons to Apollo 13 and Cast Away, and as much as I hate to directly compare one work of art to another, in this case the analogies are perfect. If I had to give a one sentence review for the book, that would be it. If that's what you were looking for, I just saved you a whole bunch of reading. If you want to know more, be my guest!

The Martian is a book set in a not-so-distant future in which NASA has successfully sent men to Mars and back. On the third manned expedition, a six person team is sent. During their first couple of weeks on the Red Planet there is a strong storm that forces the team to abort their mission and head back to Earth. In their mad scramble off of the planet, one of the crew members gets knocked out. After a frantic search by the rest of the team the missing member is left behind under the suspicion that he has died. It turns out that our hero, Mark Watney is in fact very much still alive, and this is where the novel begins. Watney was the team's chief engineer/botanists, which turn out to be invaluable skill sets for surviving alone on a planet 55 million kilometers from help. 

The true joy of this book is in following Watney's daily log, where the amiable astronaut chronicles his daily actions and ruminates about what he needs to do to survive. The storm that has left him stranded has also knocked out all communications with Earth. Watney knows that the next manned mission to Mars is not for over a year, and given the amount of supplies at his disposal, he will not have enough food to last. Given our protagonists skill sets, he is able to think of a way to stretch out the supplies as long as possible. This becomes a running theme throughout the novel - which is - how they hell do I survive? Survival may not be the most nuanced theme in the world, but it is an incredibly powerful one.

Mark Watney is a funny, inventive, and quick-witted character who you can't help but care for as the book races along. You don't get much, if any, of his backstory. It's in his daily logs and actions that the character is flushed out. The longer into the novel you get, the more you begin to feel the weight of the isolation that Watney is feeling. You begin to understand the toll that prolonged loneliness would have on a person in his situation. The only thing he has to keep him company on Mars is a datastick filled with things that his other team members left behind, including: bad 70's sitcoms (Three is Company, The Dukes of Hazard), Disco Music, and Agatha Christie novels. If I was stranded on another planet with only these those things to keep me entertained, I would probably just take off my helmet on the surface and die the same kind of death that the villain in Total Recall experiences. It beats having to listen to Abba.The way in which Weir is able to talk about the complex formulas and techniques that one would have to know in order to solve complicated tasks on another planet is both believable and extremely interesting. This is an extremely tight novel. All of the plot points fit together like so many pieces of a giant puzzle, one that is thrilling to see come together. Weirs ability to create likable characters and believable action is the resin that holds all of the pieces together. 

It's hard to talk about many of the plot details in the book because most of the fun of reading it is seeing how Watney is able to solve each puzzle put in front of him. What I can say about the plot is that it stays razor focused. Too often with stories like this, writers feel the need to add an extra layer of drama into what is already a riveting read. I was amazed to learn that this is Weir's first novel. There is a confidence in the plotting that I would expect out of someone who has been writing books like this for yearsI have a friend who almost exclusively reads nonfiction. One of my favorite things talk about with him is what kind of novel it would take to catch his interest. This is the kind of hard science fiction that feels so close to reality I found myself thinking - yeah, I can see this happening in the next decade or so. Who knows, perhaps if an expert read this they would be able to point out a hundred little inaccuracies, in the same way that Gravity was torn to shreds by astrophysicists, but who cares? The writing feels authentic, and it creates a story premise in a genre rife with stories about men on Mars. 

I can see a film adaption in which Watney has a family waiting for him at home. We would get a good twenty minutes of his wife tearfully watching coverage of his perilous quest for survival on CNN. I can already hear the Aerosmith/Bon Jovi song in the background when I think about the scene in which the two embrace, right before he is set to launch. Thankfully, none of this is in the book. It's Weirs dedication to keeping the plot moving that makes the novel so hard to put down. This is the story about a man trying to survive a desperate situation - nothing more, nothing less.  I found The Martian to be well paced and pitch perfect when it came to its characters and tone. There is a level of craftsmanship in the writing that is very impressive for a first time novelist. I look forward to seeing what kinds of worlds Weir decides to explore in the future.