Self-reliant and self-deprecating, innovative and ironic, the intrepid main character of The Martian is stuck alone on Mars. One of six crew members on an American space mission from Houston, Mark Watney was injured in a freak accident, blown out of sight in a dust storm, and left behind by his fellow astronauts when they assume he is dead. But Watney is very much alive; he regains consciousness, doctors himself, and then sets about securing his future. Much of the novel consists of Watney’s log, where he makes regular entries that describe each day’s activities. Before long, someone at Mission Control Center spots his movements via satellite, and the race is on to bring him home safely. After that, The Martian includes Houston’s engineering creativity as well as Watney’s, and the world’s agonized concern about his fate as well as his own amusement at the precariousness of his situation. The narrative even includes conversations between his fellow astronauts, still en route back to earth when they learn of their colleague’s survival.
So here I am, writing with whole-hearted enthusiasm about a novel I shouldn’t like at all. I rarely read science fiction, know little and care less about engineering problem-solving, and cannot imagine a lonely castaway sustaining this plot for nearly 400 pages. Yet Weir succeeds in creating a charming main character plus a microcosm of engineering innovation. With dexterous and imaginative details, he blends rudimentary repairs and makeshift life-saving machinations with “down-to-earth” (pun intended) humor and hilarious asides. I found myself laughing out loud at Watney’s sarcasm, just as I found myself intrigued by the difficulties he managed to overcome.
Not enough food? Watney grows potatoes fertilized by his own excrement. Need more oxygen? Or hydrogen? Or water? For every omission, Watney figures out a way to make it happen (a way that is far too complicated for me to explain here—suffice to say I didn’t lose interest). Something rips? A patch kit and duct tape, lots of it, even to hold an air lock together. Bored? Reruns of ‘70s sit-coms, annotated with appropriate Watney commentary. More heat? That’s solvable, too, with radioactive plutonium that is supposed to be buried in Martian sand. And sand abounds in this novel, creating travel problems on the ground, solar panel power problems in the air, and countless logistical problems when Watney finally tries to maneuver from one part of Mars to another.
His trek in a rover, towing another rover with Gerry-rigged gear attached everywhere possible, takes Watney from his MDV (Mars Descent Vehicle) location to a distant MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) already situated for the fourth Mars mission. The plan is that he will then be able to rendezvous with his rescuers. The 3200 kilometer trip will take somewhere around 100 sols (Martian days), if Watney is lucky. Whenever his luck doesn’t hold, he has a colorful vocabulary to describe his tribulations. Getting ready for the journey, and then dealing with the inevitable accidents and equipment failures, makes for fascinating reading. Again, I never expected to enjoy this novel as much as I did. So I recommend it highly, not only to a reader with an engineer’s mind set but also to all those readers who can repair nothing whatsoever. I still can’t repair anything whatsoever, but I thoroughly enjoyed accompanying the Martian as he invented ways to fix everything that broke and as he struggled to survive. – Ann Ronald