As debut novels go, you won't find many finer than THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir. I'll just come right out and make that clear from the get-go. From its opening descent into chaos to the final nail-biting pages, the book is a complete triumph. And before you think you know what's going on by the title alone, know this: the Martian in question is not a little green alien bent on domination of Earth. No, here the Martian is a man.
The Ares Program is NASA's manned Mars project. Mark Watney is the lowest ranked astronaut on the Ares 3 mission, and while he's one of the first people to ever walk on Mars, he may now become the first man to die there. When a tremendous dust storm ravages the surface encampment, Watney is injured and blown away from his team as they attempt to reach the evacuation module. Fearing a loss of the entire crew, they leave, believing Watney is dead.
Following along with Watney's story is easy because he documents it in a mission blog. He's alone, the only living thing in a harsh world, with limited food, water and air. His calculations tell him that he will starve to death long before the next possible mission arrival. He has no means by which to speak with NASA. He is, quite literally, a man alone.
"As debut novels go, you won't find many finer than THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir.... From its opening descent into chaos to the final nail-biting pages, the book is a complete triumph."
On Earth, however, NASA has said their goodbyes. Watney has had a memorial service, the Postal Service has issued a memorial stamp, and they're wondering if the Ares 4 mission will be able to secure funding after this loss. They determine that one way they just might get those funds is if part of the next mission becomes a "recovery operation" by which they locate and bring back Watney's remains. Positioning satellites to photograph the old Ares 3 mission base, they are shocked to see things out of place, and more shocked to learn that Watney is, in fact, alive.
This sets off the rollercoaster ride of THE MARTIAN. They have to announce the findings by law, which could backlash against them for abandoning an astronaut, yet just may secure even more funding for a rescue mission. How can they contact Watney and let him know that they know he's alive? That they're coming? And how do they even put together the necessary means to do so in such a short window? They know how much time he has. It's the Apollo 13 square peg/round hole problem on a massive scale.
Weir spends a lot of time getting the science right. He did tons of research, and what he has come up with is the most realistic-feeling manned space adventure you could want. Every page may be riddled with science --- solid, hard science --- but it is presented in a way that is anything but boring or beyond the reach of a common reader. In fact, a few of the characters, including Watney, are constantly riffing and injecting THE MARTIAN with wit and humor that keep the novel from becoming a dry, plodding yawner.
Besides the Earth/Mars issues and the shifting of the story from one to the other, Weir also weaves in the story of the crew of the Hermes, Watney's crewmates who are presently on their way back to Earth. They're rocked by their experience and devastated at having to leave behind a fallen companion...but NASA has blocked them learning about Watney's survival and the plans for his rescue. Weir's ability to weave these three story elements together is done with a very deft hand, and as a result, THE MARTIAN is not a book easy to put down.
Mars is a brutal world. A cold world. A harsh world. Following the trials of Watney as he fights to survive is a glorious adventure. It is easy to cheer his successes yet heartbreaking when the planet rises up to beat him down. Through it all, it is his intelligence and rapid-fire humor that engages you and ties you to him. Watney will not let you go, but he would understand if you left. As he says, "It's true, you know. In space, no one can hear you scream like a little girl." Screaming aside, Mark Watney is THE MARTIAN you find yourself rooting for.
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on February 14, 2014