"The Martian" author Andy Weir, Crown Publishing Group 2014 (10 out of 10)
About a year ago I made the conscious decision to read more science fiction. I’ve always read a lot of Star Trek and Star Wars tie-ins and other novels, and I’ll continue doing that. But I wanted to broaden my horizons to include some of the classics and current science fiction books. When it comes to the classics, I’ve been reading Asimov, Herbert, Card, Bradbury, and Clarke. They’re names I’ve known forever, but each has at least one masterpiece that I wanted to check out. For current science fiction, I’ve been reading The Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey, and "Red Rising" by Pierce Brown. Each has had a novel released in the series in 2014, with "Red Rising" starting a trilogy last spring.
A book that’s been getting a lot of buzz is The Martian, by Andy Weir. I read it last month, and loved pretty much every page. It’s a rarity in that it’s a science fiction book, but every part of it is believable. Weir has a background as a programmer, and his more technical approach to writing is evident. Sometimes that means a cold, nonhuman feel to a book—not so here.
The plot is this: Mars has been visited twice before by mankind—on the third trip, shortly after landing there’s a disaster. One crewmember is killed, the rest evacuate and begin their return trip to Earth. Only the crewmember they leave behind isn’t dead. He’s Mark Watley, and he becomes a sort of modern day (okay, near-future day) Robinson Crusoe. Watley is uniquely qualified to be stranded on another planet—he’s a botanist and engineer, skills he’ll need in order to survive.
Weir does a masterful job of helping us feel the loneliness Mark is going through. He lost all communications with Earth with the initial disaster and loss of the landing vehicle, and is more alone than any human has ever been. He finds ways to cope with it, but Weir lets us feel the despair the astronaut is going through. We also get to experience Mark’s claustrophobia. There was a habitation module on the surface at the landing site, so there’s a place to live, ways to generate oxygen, some water, etc. But he’s locked in that bubble for long stretches of time. Weir’s descriptions of the hab are clear enough that we can picture it, and long for Watley to get out as much as he does.
The fun thing about any survival novel—“Hatchet,” “Swiss Family Robinson,” “Danny Dunn and the Deserted Island,” whatever—is seeing how the character manages to cope with disaster despite the odds. The other fun thing is wondering if you could survive yourself, and how you would do things differently. Mark Watley is a brilliant character, and he makes missteps along the way. The book is told mostly through his log entries, which make his survival questionable. No matter how brave or smart or funny he is, there’s not a way for him to get back to Earth. There’s not enough food to last the years it will take for NASA to come pick him up, and it’s not clear he has enough emotional reserves to make it either.
This is a book you'll call in sick to read
Some readers haven’t liked the too-technical parts of the book, and that’s understandable. Sometimes Weir’s explanations of airlocks and valves and gauges sound as detailed as Tolkien describing a frigging elvish doorknob...but it’s always to an end. His descriptions make Watley’s predicament more visceral, and our journey with him as thrilling and intense as possible. This is a book you won't want to put down, one you'll call in sick to read. It's one you laugh out loud at, gasp at, and even cry at. If you're a crier. It comes down to this: if you’re a fan of more realistic science fiction than fantasy, "The Martian" is an incredible read.