Mark Watney is the mechanical engineer aboard the Ares 3 mission, one of six mission specialists on a sixty-day stay on the Martian surface. But on day six, disaster strikes, as a dust storm that exceeds their habitat’s design specifications hits unexpectedly, knocking out comms to Earth and threatening to destroy their ride home. The mission commander, Lewis, decides they must abort the mission while they can still leave the planet, but on the walk from the hab to the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle), Watney is struck by a large piece of windblown debris, his suit breached, his body visibly bleeding profusely, and he tumbles down a slope. His lifesigns quickly fade to black. With only a couple of minutes at most before the MAV topples irretrievably, there is no time to retrieve Watney’s body: Lewis, mindful for the safety of the remaining crew members, insists that the mission abort must proceed. The MAV launches, with only five of the six crew aboard; it makes orbit, then achieves rendezvous with the booster Hermes, and begins the long 200-day crawl back to Earth.
But Mark Watney is not dead. His lost blood, freezing, has sealed his damaged suit, which has automatically recharged his air supply from its emergency reservoir before sounding its internal alarm to revive him to eventual consciousness. He’s stranded on Mars, utterly alone, with no means of communication, with only enough food supplies for a year, and with absolutely no prospect of rescue within that time, but he’s not dead. Yet.
The Martian is Andy Weir’s debut novel, self-published in 2011 before a ‘big publisher’ re-release in 2014. It’s received favourable and well-judged comparisons to Robinson Crusoe and to Gravity, and it’s slated to get a cinematic treatment of its own, with the news that Ridley Scott is to direct a film adaptation of the book. (Spoiler alert: aficionados of the chestbursting sequence from Alien are likely to be disappointed, unless the movie is excessively unfaithful to the original; but those who appreciate a tight, wry, and repeatedly desperate struggle against the constraints of isolation, calorific finality, and sheer environmental brutality should find much to their liking.)
Weir’s never been to Mars (so far as I know), but he writes with such an easy familiarity of the Salmon-Coloured Planet, of the mechanics and thermodynamics of getting there and back, and of the politics and personalities of mission oversight, that it’s quite tempting to be fooled into believing he just might have. Scientific rigour is one of the book’s virtues (although it must be conceded that there are a few lapses — I think Weir’s excursions into in-habitat combustion chemistry are, in one or two places, audacious to say the very least). The characterisation of Mark Watney, the chief protagonist, is another virtue — it is to Watney’s credit that he treats every setback, and there are many, with self-deprecation, grim determination, and potty-mouthed irreverence, whether this be directed at the planet that threatens to kill him, the machinery that struggles to keep him alive, or his erstwhile commander’s taste in recorded music. It also says much for Weir’s skill as a writer that, although the first three chapters of this 400-page book occur entirely within the viewpoint of Watney’s skull, with no other characters coming into the field of view (and, it begins to seem, no prospect of other characters for the entire span of the text), this constricted narrative is not claustrophobic. It helps, from this perspective, that Watney is the bastard child of Julius Sumner Miller, Rube Goldberg, and Marvin the Paranoid Android, with a dash of Hunter S. Thompson thrown in for good measure: if we must spend the entire book in one person’s head, it’s best if it’s an interesting head. (I should add, however, that (a), several other actual characters of appropriate different stripes are introduced, as Weir fills us in on the backstory, and on the Earthside developments; and (b), some of the dialogue, not to say the machinations, between these characters is delightful: another virtue.)
Just about everything that can go wrong with Watney’s struggle for survival does go wrong. And yet Watney, as noted, is supremely resourceful. He has the laws of physics, an endlessly inventive and imaginative mind, a six-person habitat, a functional air- and water-recycling system, heating, a functional alimentary canal, duct tape, a rover or two, some spare parts, civilisation’s most powerful adhesive, and a dozen potatoes. What’s the worst that could happen?
I’ll reserve judgment on whether the story as presented could actually play out. As with Gravity, there are things that are just a bit hinky in places. And there are aspects of the ‘trek’ which forms the ultimate focus of Watney’s sojourn on Mars that seem, in the writing, a bit underwritten, a bit too hastily-sketched compared to so much of the detail that has gone before. But these, when all is said and done, are fairly minor criticisms. The Martian is a well-paced romp that blends scientific street cred with interplanetary brinksmanship, and how often can you say that of a book?