Mark Watney is stranded, alone, on Mars.
by Andy Weir
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?
Mark Watney is stranded, alone, on Mars.
There are plenty of books whose success I do not understand. The Martian is not one of those books. The Martian has such a simple premise it’s amazing that it wasn’t done earlier.
There are no villains, just the laws of nature, and that’s more than enough tension for this book. The closest to villainy are some extremely minor disagreements among the NASA JPL crew. Why need an external saboteur when you have a clever protagonist who is nonetheless isolated and fallible?
“Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.”
The plot ticks along with clockwork precision. Watney starts off in a very bad position, assumed dead and stranded with no communications. In fact, the book never again gains the tension of those first few pages. Watney then problem-solves his way through it. That act of problem-solving has its own unintended consequences, which then need to be worked through.
First, of course, there’s the lack of food. So he plants potatoes, which will give him the calories he needs, and the other vitamins can come from supplements NASA sent. Of course, making enough potatoes isn’t easy when one doesn’t have air or water, so he needs to find ways to create those too. When that’s done, he goes exploring to find Pathfinder, after a long journey, so he can communicate with NASA. He gets that, and long-term planning kicks in. Can he survive until the next Mars mission? Absolutely. It felt like around this point the tension was flagging, so everything goes from bad to worse very quickly. A mistake in the airlock kills most of his potatoes, and he has no way to make more.
“He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?” He turned back to Venkat. “I wonder what he’s thinking right now.”
While trying to get the rover working he accidentally short-circuits all communications with NASA. At this point, he has no choice but to drive across Mars to a distant place where he’s to intercept a shuttle that’s bringing him back, but he has no way of communicating or receiving communications from NASA. (Well, he can spell out morse code with rocks, but that’s not much, and they can’t respond.)
I admit, there were plenty of sections of this book where I had no idea how plausible Watney’s plan was. He seemed pretty convinced. I hear the book was well researched. I’ll trust the people who know better on this.
While I have no issues with bringing up my personal preferences, I will try to judge the book as written, rather than the one I would have written. That said, I definitely would have ] preferred a bit more awareness of what the sheer amount of isolation could do to someone than Weir was interested in. We get a decent amount of information about Watney—he’s a botanist and engineer. His parents are alive and well. He’s a giant nerd, he has a great sense of humour, he got along well with his crewmates, he’s good at improvising and problem solving.
But there’s always a sense that Weir is uncomfortable writing about the more emotional aspects of Watney. The movie improved on this, and it certainly helps to have the advantages of a film (not just the actor, but the score, the cinematography, and more), but the book was a bit too invested in Watney maintaining his composure despite the toll such isolation and stress would take on anyone.
The cooperation from NASA and everyone back on Earth hoping for the best for Watney was excellent.
The idea that humanity would be so willing to work together to help this man in particular and space exploration in general felt utopian. Sometimes, that’s what you need.
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About the Author
I’m funnier without context.
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I’m a mid-30s nerd, married, with two kids. Also two cats–Cathulhu and Necronomicat.
I like, in no particular order, tabletop gaming, board games, arguing over books, ancient history and religion, and puns.
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