“The Martian” opens with a freak dust storm, forcing manned Mars Mission Ares 3 to cut its journey short. Astronaut Mark Watney is pierced by debris while his crew scrambles to the safety of their spacecraft. When his vital signs flat-line, the crew makes the difficult decision to embark for Earth without him. But after a miraculous turn of events, Watney recovers to find himself alone on the red planet. Traveling to Mars takes years, so it’s likely that he will starve or succumb to the harsh, unforgiving conditions of his new home before a rescue mission arrives. No danger of that, though, because why would NASA rescue a dead guy?
Through a series of journal entries riddled with humorous commentary, readers learn that Watney is the mission’s fix-it man, in addition to a botanist and a snarky (yet cautious) optimist. Watney overcomes setbacks with the resourcefulness of TV’s MacGyver, using his meager assortment of supplies and raw materials to improve his chances of survival. From supplementing his food by farming potatoes to making water out of thin air, Watney shows again and again that while he was one of the first astronauts to walk on Mars, he’s not ready to be the first to die there. That is, if he doesn’t die by overexposure to the cheesy 1970s sitcoms and disco music that the crew commander left behind.
Watney’s sense of humor turns this tale of survival into something new and unique. It’s more lighthearted than one might expect, and while some may find that refreshing, the cheerful quips occasionally struck me as unrealistic given the circumstances. Author Andy Weir’s language and format make the scientific elements comprehensible to nonscience geeks (like me), although I found myself skimming through lengthy descriptions to get back to the action.
Overall, excitement and laugh-out-loud dialogue make this novel an excellent pick for general fiction readers as well as thrill-seekers. Die-hard science fiction fans will especially appreciate Weir’s technical writing. (Please note that strong language laces Watney’s journal entries and may not appeal to everyone.)
It’s something of a miracle that Weir, a computer programmer by trade, crafted a debut novel that crawled its way from self-published anonymity to the desk of director Ridley Scott. Scott’s proven success with “Alien” and “Gladiator” foretells that the forthcoming film may prove to be a 2015 blockbuster. Don’t wait for the movie release, though; get your hands on the book everyone will be talking about before it hits the big screen. In the meantime, check out these similar titles available at Skagit libraries: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury; The Martian Race by Gregory Benford; and I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.
Note: I originally wrote this review for On Our Shelves, a weekly column in the Skagit Valley Herald. Read the Sunday edition to check out what library staff around the county are reading.