Marooned on Mars: A man fights (and thinks) for survival in Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian’

September 16, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 16, 2014

Mark Watney is a man with a problem.

Actually, he has lots of problems, but they boil down to one issue: How can he survive being stranded on Mars?

Roughly a decade or two in the future, Watney is part of an American expedition to the red planet. A violent dust storm strikes six days after landing, and during a chaotic evacuation, Watney is struck by debris and swept under the sand. With the wind battering their liftoff vehicle, the mission commander orders a launch, leaving behind what they think is their colleague’s corpse.

But Mars hasn’t killed the astronaut, a botanist with expertise in mechanical engineering. It’s merely wounded him and, by destroying the expedition’s communications array, cut him off from the rest of humanity. Watney drags himself to safety and begins grappling with the hard realities of life as a space-age castaway.

In his favor, the mission’s habitat is essentially undamaged, giving Watney a nearly full complement of food, water and supplies that was originally intended to last six people for a month. Unfortunately, the next spaceship isn’t due for approximately four years…

This is the relatively straightforward setup of The Martian, a science fiction novel by Andy Weir. The book has an interesting history: The first-time author, a California software engineer, began it as a series of posts on his blog. Weir self-published the work as an electronic book in 2012. Earlier this year, Random House released a hardcover edition, and movie rights have been optioned.

The science and technology of The Martian seem plausible. Watney, who’s well-trained and naturally innovative, jury-rigs a series of solutions to each of his problems using techniques and technology that I imagine would be available to someone in his situation. He recycles his bodily waste, converts the floors of his living quarters into a potato farm, and scavenges hardware in an effort to reconnect with Earth. Weir structures his book with an exciting, if somewhat predictable, problem-assessment-solution-resolution cycle that repeatedly gooses the tension levels.

Most of the story is conveyed through Watney’s personal log, but scattered passages describe events on Earth and elsewhere. This is a relatively typical early journal entry from the book:

The time has come (ominous musical crescendo) for some missions!

NASA gets to name their missions after gods and stuff, so why can’t I? Henceforth, rover experimental missions will be “Sirius” missions. Get it? Dogs? Well if you don’t, fuck you.

Sirius 1 will be tomorrow.

The mission: Start with fully charged batteries and solar cells on the roof, drive until I run out of power, and see how far I get.

I won’t be an idiot. I’m not driving directly away from the Hub. I’ll drive a half-kilometer stretch, back and forth. I’ll be within a short walk of home at all times.

Tonight, I’ll charge up both batteries so I can be ready for a little test drive tomorrow. I estimate three and a half hours of driving, so I’ll need to bring fresh CO2 filters. And, with the heater off, I’ll wear three layers of clothes.

This is pretty representative of Watney’s sense of humor — rather juvenile — and amount of the text devoted to problem-solving. Some of it is more interesting than the excerpt above; relatively little of it is less accessible to the lay reader.

The novel’s major failing, however, is that it’s filled with types, not people. Watney himself is a wisecracking engineer who complains about the entertainment his crewmates left behind (disco music, 1970s television shows, Agatha Christie novels and German texts) without ever really expressing any individual taste. The other characters tend to have one or two distinguishing characteristics apiece: The NASA administrator is well-dressed; the Mars mission managers are variously competent or obsessed; the mission commander is (a) haunted by having abandoned a team member and (b) enamored of all things ’70s; the German astronaut is strait-laced; the expedition pilot is handsome and cocky.

Science fiction enthusiasts — especially those who yearn to see humanity return to space exploration of the kind that was in vogue in the late 20th century — will enjoy The Martian, even as they chafe at its limitations. Those who aren’t genre fans would do better to give the book a miss.

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