By Andy Weir
Self-published by Andy Weir in 2011, The Martian was picked up by Crown Publishing in 2014, made into an acclaimed film starring Matt Damon in 2015, and recognised with a Hugo Award in 2016. Its rapid rise to success is testament to Weir’s talent in crafting an original, meticulously researched book that is as scientifically satisfying as it is thoroughly exciting.
It’s set in a near future, in which humans have successfully landed upon Mars. Strictly speaking, this makes it science fiction, but only just. Science fiction works feature just that, fictional science – gadgets, theories and technology not invented at the time of writing. The science in The Martian is tantalisingly close to what we have now: just advanced enough to give it a fantastical feel, but practical enough to make it credible. We’re not talking laser guns, here. We’re talking a precarious pressurised dome in which a human being can – with a great deal of effort – survive on Mars.
After NASA’s ‘Ares 3’ mission to Mars is cut short by one of the many storms that this harsh environment experiences (the only plot device that sacrifices scientific accuracy), a hurried evacuation goes horribly wrong. Mark Watney, engineer and botanist for NASA, is left behind, presumed dead. While he’s not, with little food and no form of communication, he (and we) could be forgiven for thinking that this was a foregone conclusion. But, the nature of Watney makes him “work the problem” rather than be defeated by it. In a series of journal entries, he details his ingenious solutions, which include a number of explosions, learning to grow potatoes out of faeces, and lots of duct tape. He eventually finds a way to contact Earth, with a delay between messages that will make us twenty-first century earthlings squirm. Still, it’s good enough, and the book starts to alternate between Watney’s journal on Mars, and the story of NASA’s efforts to bring him home.
The true power of this novel is in the way it makes science-lovers appreciate fiction, and fiction-lovers appreciate science. While these two groups aren’t always, of course, separate from each other, The Martian will break down any remaining walls that exist between them. For the science-lovers, there’s more credible, peer-reviewed theory than can possibly be fully comprehended in one read. Somehow, Weir manages to spin all of this science into a narrative that will intrigue and reward the most ardent novel fans.
At a time when NASA is putting some serious thought into our ability to escape to Mars one day, The Martian lets us vicariously experience this possibility. As Watney ponders: "It’s a strange feeling. Everywhere I go, I’m the first. Step outside the rover? First guy ever to be there! Climb a hill? First guy to climb that hill! Kick a rock? That rock hadn’t moved in a million years!"
As exciting as this experience is, it’s nothing compared to Watney’s personality. Specifically chosen for the mission for his unique blend of intelligence, optimism and humour, he is a stellar role model for perseverance and grit. While he’s got plenty of inspirational messages – “I guess you could call it a 'failure, but I prefer the term 'learning experience'" – his down-to-earth humour (and, in some cases, downright immaturity) stop him from sounding preachy. Watney is a genius. He also makes mistakes, enjoys inappropriate humour, and swears (there’s a ‘younger reader’s’ edition that effectively moderates him for all ages).
Regardless of whether you’ve watched the film version, you should read this novel. It’s the kind of book you’ll want to give to your friends and family, so you can talk through how Watney did what he did. In fact, pretty soon you’ll forget you’re reading a novel at all and will be kicking the rocks on Mars right alongside him.