If I told you Andy Weir’s The Martian is packed with lists, math, and chemistry, but no aliens, you’d probably pass, right? But that would make me a terrible friend because The Martian is a great read (or listen—I went through the audiobook in four days).
The story starts out as “Cast Away” in space: Mark Watney, an astronaut in the near future, is left for dead on Mars after what appears to be a fatal accident. His team also leaves behind plenty of equipment, though, including rovers and a Hab (short for Martian Habitat—essentially a fancy tent capable of maintaining an Earth-like atmosphere). Watney can’t communicate with Earth, but he knows another Mars mission is coming in four years. If he can survive until then, he can go home.
There’s just one problem (initially): he has less than a year’s worth of food.
This is where the math and science come in. Watney takes detailed stock of his available resources, calculates how many calories he needs, and sets about growing potatoes (from the fresh spuds NASA originally packed for Thanksgiving dinner) in the Hab. Improvised agriculture is his first solution to a relentless series of problems that force him to continually adapt or die.
That endless need for innovation drives much of the plot. Other entries in the survival genre share the premise: Man (it’s almost always a man) versus Nature in a battle for the most fundamental of stakes. But few stories keep the crises and resulting try-fail cycles coming as fast and furiously as The Martian does; Watney is almost always working to overcome some seemingly insurmountable obstacle. That he does so plausibly is a testament to Weir’s imagination and research.
My only real criticisms are about the point of view: Watney’s account is mostly delivered via first-person log entries. This allows his good-natured sarcasm to come through, but when Weir finally cuts back to Earth to show the moment NASA realizes Watney’s alive, the scene is in third-person objective. The shift is a bit jarring. If Weir had incorporated more third-person for Watney, the transition would have been smoother. Going this route also would have kept the few existing third-person sections on Mars from being such obvious precursors to something going horribly wrong. And Weir would have been able to better frame a passage in which, for some reason, Watney feels compelled to narrate his actions via audio recorder during one of the direst moments in the book. (I mean, he probably talks to himself all day long, but I just didn’t buy it in such an extreme situation.)
But these are quibbles. Generally speaking, I found The Martian as enjoyable as it was smart. I can’t wait to see the movie.
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