In this installment of Well Loved Books, I rave about a book I read – recently or not – that I loved. It’s the sort of book you want to shove into people’s hands, talk about when you’re done and keep thinking about long afterward.
I read The Martian by Andy Weir in December 2014 and thought it would be a good time to spread the word now that the movie is out. (Which is awesome, by the way.)
By Andy Weir
Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first man to die there.
It started with the dust storm that holed his suit and nearly killed him, and that forced his crew to leave him behind, sure he was already dead. Now he’s stranded millions of miles from the nearest human being, with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive–and even if he could get word out, his food would be gone years before a rescue mission 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 get 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. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?
Mark Watney’s journal is terrifying. He is an astronaut stranded on Mars. He keeps the electronic journal in case someday someone is able to read about how he tried to stay alive as long as he could. The state of space travel in The Martian is ahead of the real world but still with limitations – the next manned expedition to Mars won’t arrive for 4 years and even with his fancy potato farm he won’t make it that long.
I was so engaged with Mark’s journal that I was surprised to suddenly get a third person perspective of NASA employees back on Earth. Having the extra points of view – NASA, the Hermes crew that was forced to leave Mark behind, among other – filled in the story in a tremendous way. The world becomes obsessed once it learns that a presumed dead astronaut is still alive and finding a way to survive. CNN creates a half-hour daily program to provide any updates. NASA begins taking regular satellite photos to watch what Mark does each day. These photos are shared with the world who roots for his homecoming. Having the perspective of those on Earth, especially when they know something terrible is about to happen but can’t do anything about it, ramped up the tension for me as well.
Mark is the crew’s botanist which comes in handy when he decides to take the 6 potatoes NASA allowed on the ship for a Thanksgiving celebration and grow them inside the HAB (a temporary shelter that quickly becomes his permanent shelter). He is also a genius problem-solver. With nothing but time on his hands, Mark can turn a problem over and over in his mind until he comes up with a plan. And most of his plans are risky which he very well knows. But what does he have to lose?
The NASA psychologist at one point describes Mark’s personality as being compatible with everyone, one of the main reasons he was selected for the crew. Long-term space travel requires that everyone gets along and Mark’s humor and ability to stay calm under stress helps the entire group. His humor and strength comes through in his journals. There aren’t really any moments of despondency and I didn’t find myself missing that or feeling like those moments should have been included. From the beginning, through Mark’s own words, it is clear that he will curse a problem and then try to solve it. He isn’t one to wallow or give up. Any other personality wouldn’t have made it through the plot, to be perfectly honest. It would have been a very different book if Weir decided to have the lone man on Mars be prone to depression. Actually, now that I think of it, all of the astronauts on Hermes are risk-takers and problem-solvers. I think those personality traits are probably necessary for something like space travel. There are so many things that can go wrong and everyone needs to keep their wits about them. Mark may be more realistic an astronaut than I considered.
Without knowing anything about the science and math behind space travel, I felt like I understood what everyone was talking about. It got pretty complicated in some scenes but there was always a character that needed clarity – often the NASA PR woman – which allowed for a translation into layman’s speak. And Mark even gets bored with explaining things. He often writes things like, “Trust me on my math.” I do. And the little research I did after reading the book makes me trust the math and science even more. Andy Weir is extremely smart and this book came out of his hobby of creating space trajectories and missions for fun.
Aside for the science, which could be an obstacle for some (whether comprehension or interest), all of Mark’s obstacles are very realistic. He solves a lot of problems but he also makes mistakes. One mistake in particular blows out the single means of communicating with Earth. It is a mistake anyone would make and that make the result so heartbreaking. Other obstacles are about how he’ll create water or grow the potatoes or move around on Mars with the rovers. They are expected problems and even when he solves them things go wrong. I appreciated how authentic it made Mark as a protagonist. He’s clearly intelligent but he’s not perfect. We’d all like to think we could pull something like this off but I certainly wouldn’t know how to track the bacteria in the soil to grow potatoes. But if you take away his intelligence and comfort with risks, he is a man trying to survive and some days it’s easier than others.
The Martian was an extremely enjoyable read that I would recommend to anyone, not just people interested in science fiction. It’s a story of survival and hope. It’s a thriller filled with suspense. It’s a plain old good book that inspires me to go home and edit my own work in progress. Good storytelling crosses all genres.