The Martian by Andy Weir
One night three years ago, my father—my healthy, funny, beloved father—went to sleep and did not wake up. He was a truly brilliant guy. In my belligerent youth, I failed to appreciate this as unique. I just thought all men had an encyclopedic knowledge of everything from foreign policy to structural engineering. In my house, if some highly complex piece of machinery broke, my dad did not truck over to Lowe’s and buy a new one. He’d dissemble the thing down to its component parts, deduce how it worked, and whip up a new and much more efficient one out of some toothpicks, duct tape and gum salvaged from the trash. (Side note: duct tape is featured prominently in The Martian. Men love duct tape…cliched but true.“Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.”) Anyway, now of course I realize my dad’s ingenuity was one of the most remarkable things about him.
So reading this novel was bittersweet for me. After only a couple pages, I was whimpering ‘Daddy, DADDY,’ inside my head. Like my dad, astronaut Mark Watney is one of those guys who can figure out anything. Even if you don’t live with one of those guys personally, you know the kind I mean. (And if you want to delve into the Mr. Fixit phenomenon further, read some reviews of Mark Watney’s character on Goodreads. Women absolutely LOVE this guy.)
Example: “…It's everything that I look for in a man, err... book: smart, funny, exciting, and kept me up half the night. Rawr!—Becky.
The story opens with Mark Watney finding himself in an extreme MacGyver situation: his space mission has gone horribly wrong, and he is trapped on Mars. His fellow shipmates believe that he is dead and they’ve bounced, leaving him behind with no way off the planet and no means of communication with Earth. Oh, and he has been impaled by an antenna, which has torn a hole in both his spacesuit and him, leaving him unconscious on the surface of a planet with an atmosphere of nearly pure carbon dioxide. Kind of daunting odds, right?
Fortunately, the dust cloud that knocked Watney out left him with an intact habitat, a functional oxygenator, six spacesuits, and a water reclaimer. If, like me, you geek out about chemistry, then you’ll really enjoy this part, because Watney has to use all his considerable resourcefulness even to breathe. Instead of despairing like a normal person, he immediately starts jerry-rigging contraptions out of spaceship parts (and duct tape.) It’s like whac-a-mole: every time he solves one problem, a new, more ghastly one crops up. In the end, he’ll have to abandon the habitat and strike out on his own in the most hostile circumstances imaginable.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, an astute SatCom tech figures out that Watney is alive. This creates a media storm bigger than the OJ Simpson trial and Princess Kate’s baby combined, with around-the-clock cable news coverage of everything he does. NASA refuses to tell Watney’s fellow astronauts that he didn’t croak, because they are still in orbit and have no way of helping him. The rest of the world watches him via satellite as he tries to conjure up a way to phone home.
The downside of the novel is this: there’s a lot of math. A LOT OF MATH. Also a lot of space-nerd-type science. Andy Weir, the author, goes into excruciating detail about how some of these seemingly insurmountable obstacles are, in fact, surmounted. Weir says that he actually performed all the calculations involved and even wrote a software program to estimate some of the orbital mechanics. (Or he said something along those lines on an NPR show I was kind of listening to a few months back—don’t hold me to the technicalities here, please.) All in all, though, he did a staggering amount of research to write this.
So…how is this book not boring as all get-out, you ask?
First, there is the hook. You cannot help but want to know how in the world could this guy possibly survive? It’s a page-turner; he is constantly about to suffocate or explode or instantly deep-freeze and you just can’t imagine how he’s going to wiggle out of this one. And there’s no deus ex machina; I’ve read online that astrophysicists/aerospace engineers/NASA astronauts who’ve read the book think that it is somewhat plausible, give or take some artistic license here and there. Even though it’s a fun read, it’s one of those books that convinces you that you’ve just gained about 20 IQ points from reading it.
Then there is Watney’s personality: he’s funny. His heroic struggle to survive is relayed via his diary, which reveals him to be a ferociously intelligent smartass:
“I tested the brackets by hitting them with rocks. This kind of sophistication is what we interplanetary scientists are known for.”
“I can't wait till I have grandchildren. “When I was younger, I had to walk to the rim of a crater. Uphill! In an EVA suit! On Mars, ya little shit! Ya hear me? Mars!”
Some readers felt the most implausible part of the book was not the science but Watney’s odd perkiness as he lurches around constantly avoiding doom. If you are looking for a novel filled with contemplation of soul-shattering isolation, this is not the book for you. Minimal character development going on here; it’s pure plot. Sure, most human beings would succumb to hopelessness, loneliness and existential angst—not to mention starvation or bursting into flame—but that would not make a very good read. Watney, on the other hand, stays chipper and figures out how to grow potatoes in space. He’s just so cool! Stay tuned to see Matt Damon playing him in the Hollywood version.