Mark Watney is alone and stranded, with a limited and diminishing supply of food and water, no communications, and everyone believes he is dead. But that’s not the bad news. The bad news is he’s not even on Earth – he’s stranded at the landing site of the manned mission Ares 3, on Acidalia Planitia, planet Mars. An emergency mission abort caused by a violent dust storm, a big stroke of bad luck, and the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) has ascended with the rest of the crew… but without him.
Andy Weir’s first book, initially self-published on his website and now a major publishing release, is the Martian Robinson Crusoe – a hard sci-fi narrative which follows in the great tradition of Arthur C Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust, and the real life Apollo 13 – it’s a story of survival, overcoming the odds, and ingenuity.
Meticulously researched, Watney’s story comes across as entirely believable – you come away sure this could really happen, that it really would be like this. The engineering is based on real world mission profiles, and because much of the narrative is in the form of Watney’s diary, you’re in on his day to day thoughts as he figures out how to stay alive, works the numbers, and plans ways for his own rescue. His training as a botanist at least gives him a head start in farming! In another parallel to Apollo 13, the narrative switches to and fro well between the stranded astronaut, and NASA Mission Controllers on Earth. The mission control characters are less well developed, but that’s not a bad thing as the focus is truly on Watney.
I really enjoyed the book, and certainly read it quickly as it’s hard to put down once you’re inside. To me there were a couple of flaws which stop it being a great book (who was it said that those who can, do, and those who can’t, criticise? Anyway)…
One of my other favourite authors, Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy, is a master of description and scene painting. Sometimes – as in his book 2312 as well as in sections of Green and Blue Mars – the description can drag on in place of plot development. In Weir’s The Martian, the reverse is the case – the plot motors along, quite literally with Watney driving hundreds of miles across Mars in his rover, but any sense of imagery and power of place was missing for me. Here is a man driving over the billion-year-old landscape of another planet, with dunes, rock formations, escarpments, dry river valleys, craters – every vista never before seen by human eyes, and it’s described so sparsely he might as well be travelling across a parking lot.
Some reviews have criticised Watney’s character as lacking dimensions – a criticism similarly levelled at A Fall Of Moondust as it happens – but that doesn’t bother me, in fact it makes it accurate. He’s a highly trained professional with a can-do attitude and irrepressible humour, and in such a situation – again, like the real life Apollo 13 – the astronaut is well adjusted and focussed at all times on the job in hand. A couple of times the mask slips with despairing entries into the diary, but that’s it. I’d be more irritated if the author had stuffed him with neuroses and hang-ups (didn’t they screen astronauts for long-duration mission suitability, I would have been shouting?).
The Martian is a worthy first novel for Andy Weir and I will look forward to his next journey.