My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I don’t generally enjoy so-called “hard” science fiction, i.e., that subcategory of SF that insists upon scientific accuracy and devotes a lot of time to talking about it. Not that I’m not interested in science, of course. But when it comes to fiction, I’m more of a “warp-drive-and-ray-guns” kind of guy. So I consider it quite a noteworthy accomplishment that Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian, not only makes descriptions of chemical processes and engineering problems integral to the plot, but downright gripping as well. Weir accomplishes this by telling the story mostly through the first-person voice of Mark Watney, an astronaut who’s been left behind on Mars after an accident that results in his crew mistakenly believing him to be dead. Watney’s a smart guy, but he’s also an incredible smart-ass, and his frequent wisecracks, childish vulgarity, and gallows humor leavens the logical puzzles he needs to work out in order to survive in a place that is utterly inhospitable to life.
This is an incredible adventure tale that reads like a dramatization of real events. But it’s also a richly human story that evokes the fear, wonder, loneliness, courage, nobility, and above all the danger of manned space exploration. And it’s frequently a very funny book as well… I literally laughed out loud a number of times while reading it. (I was especially amused by the running gag involving disco music.) The time setting is somewhat indeterminate — the book never specifies what year it takes place in, but it must be sometime relatively soon, because an important plot point involves the expertise of people who were operating Mars probes in the 1990s, and of course there is the enduring appeal of 1970s pop culture. Also, none of the technology described is terribly futuristic, all of which contributes to a sense that it could be happening right now. Indeed, the descriptions of how a Mars mission could actually, logistically, take place are so convincing that I don’t know why NASA isn’t already doing it as I type this. (Okay, I do know; my point is, the book is eminently plausible.)
Beyond the “gee whiz” factor and old-fashioned NASA can-do spirit, however, the thing that keeps you turning the pages at a breathless pace is Mark Watney himself. His victories and setbacks and the final, last-ditch, edge-of-your-seat attempt at a rescue mission are the stuff of an instant classic. And no doubt this story is going to make a great movie, too; it’s already in the can and coming soon to a theater near you, starring Matt Damon as Watney… a perfect choice, in my opinion…