The Martian by Andy Weir
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.
Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.
After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.
Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.
But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?”
I picked up this book on a recommendation from a friend. As a note, I don’t usually read a lot of hard science fiction, although I do enjoy science in general. I think it’s more that I don’t like when the plot hangs on technology. In this case, there’s a lot of gadgetry and clever manipulation of scientific principles, but the real story hinges on Mark’s ingenuity in figuring out how to leverage his circumstances in his favor.
Now, this does mean that the narration often strays into (or at least comes perilously close to) the “As You Know” trope. The majority of the novel consists of Mark’s log entries during his stay on Mars, and he spends a lot of time explaining what he’s doing, both in scientific jargon and simpler layman’s terms. The folks on the ground trying to help Mark get home have lots of meetings where they do something similar. It’s a little jarring, but the author does provide a rationalization: Mark is keeping the logs for public consumption, figuring that whether he lives or dies, he should leave a complete record of what happened; the NASA people come from fairly specialized backgrounds and often must share information with others who aren’t knowledgeable in that area.
I will say this, though—the science is fascinating. This is basically Robinson Crusoe in space, but with the main character adrift in an environment that’s infinitely more hostile than any desert island. I don’t think that anybody reading this book will have any doubt that Mark will eventually be rescued. The fun lies in the how of the event. We get to see crop growing in an enclosed environment, use of radioactive materials, exploding chemicals, messages spelled out with rocks, and epic cross country treks. You can’t go for too long without reading about some catastrophe that requires Mark’s boundless creativity.
I am going to call the author out on one mistake, however—and it’s a mistake that should not have been made with a character who is a botanist. In one scene, Mark is shown eating raw potatoes. This is a huge no-no, as raw potatoes are indigestible (and much is made of how much caloric intake he needs per day) and, depending on how long they’ve had to grow, mildly toxic. I can’t see someone well-versed in plant life and farm crops being so silly as to eat something that won’t help him survive.
Aside from this, the science seems accurate and is definitely engrossing. I read this book right after finishing a couple of other non-fiction titles, so it provided a good transition back to fiction. All this science does a good job of supporting the narrative and giving Mark plenty of believable ways to survive in Mars’s hostile environment. And one other note: there’s lots of humor here as well. No stuffy NASA-approved dialogues for Mark! He’s crass and honest and highly amusing, even while struggling for his life.
The Martian is a great book on space exploration, and would be ideal for getting your science-loving friends into reading science fiction. I hope Weir writes another novel, because I enjoyed this one and would like to see more.