“Why is this man smiling?” you might ask, when you see Andy Weir beaming from the back page of his novel. Well you’d be grinning too if your self-published first book had been snapped up by both Random House and Twentieth Century Fox. I couldn’t wait to read “The Martian” to find out why it has taken off like, well, a rocket to Mars, and the answer is simple: it’s a techno-thriller that also manages to be very funny.
The scenario is simple: the crew of Ares 4 is ordered to abort its mission on Mars after a few days when a terrible sandstorm threatens to destroy its habitat. During the evacuation, his crewmates reluctantly abandon astronaut Mark Watney, who is presumed dead when his biometric readout flat-lines after he is gored by a radio antenna. But of course he survives, only to find himself alone on a freezing, airless, dusty planet without any means of communication or rescue. If that doesn’t get your attention, you too may have flat-lined.
I’ve loved stories about people who are stranded in lonely places since I was a child and first read a kiddie version of “Robinson Crusoe,” closely followed by “Swiss Family Robinson.” Such tales must appeal to most of us. Weren’t we glued to the tube watching “Lost in Space,” “Gilligan’s Island,” and “Lost,” not to mention movies such as “Blue Lagoon,” and “Cast Away?” I don’t know about you, but for me, the appeal lies in the castaway’s life-affirming will to survive and the courage, endurance, and ingenuity it takes to do so. And then there’s the suspense. What’s not to like, right?
Many things conspire to make “The Martian” a fun and exciting read. The geeks among us will be fascinated by the science. This may become mind-numbing to the non-geeks, but the rest of us will love the main character, Mark Watney, for the irreverent, breezy, smart-alecky tone of the daily logs he keeps. Selected for the mission for his training as a botanist and mechanical engineer, as well as for his good-natured personality and ability to make his crewmates laugh, Watney has what it takes to survive. He is incredibly intelligent and ingenious, someone who can cobble together what he needs from whatever is at hand. Give him a roll of duct tape long enough, and he can rule the world. Duct tape?
“Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshipped,” Watney exclaims.
He’s also an excellent planner and is meticulous about testing and retesting his inventions and travel plans. As well, he better be. He will have to get himself, via a Mars rover he has tricked out, some 3,200 kilometers to the Schiaparelli Crater, where it’s remotely possible he can be picked up by a future mission. I say remotely possible because, while he has, or can manufacture, adequate supplies of power, oxygen, and water, he only has enough food to last, at best, about a year. Problem is, NASA won’t be able to get a rescue mission to him for 4 years. If, that is, they find out he’s alive. Unlike E.T., he can’t phone home.
Another thing that will make you love our hero is that he is very resilient. When things go hideously wrong – and believe me, they do – he whines and curses, then pulls himself together and fixes them. Not enough food? Well, he’s a botanist, so he figures out how to grow potatoes.
In his log, he muses about this accomplishment: “They say once you grow crops somewhere you have officially ‘colonized’ it. So technically I colonized Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!”
While Watney is busily trying to survive on Mars with no “Man Friday” to help him, the action shifts back and forth between the Houston Space Center and “Hermes,” the spaceship carrying Watney’s crewmates back to Earth. We meet lots of interesting characters in both settings, and because a different type font is used to identify radio messages, it’s easy to differentiate between regular dialogue and interplanetary conversations. I don’t want to be a spoiler here, but obviously NASA discovers that Watney is alive and sets about trying to rescue him. The big questions — Will Watney make it to the rendezvous site? Will they find a way to communicate with him and scoop him up before he starves to death? — you’ll have to answer by reading the book, unless you want the suspense to kill you.
Watching the entire world rally to root for Watney and try to rescue him recalls to me the early days of space travel, when we were glued to our TV sets, cheering on our intrepid astronauts. Watney feels humbled by the goodwill that brings together the disparate forces that may save him, and concludes, “Every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out.” Okay, it’s corny, but, thankfully quite true.
After reading “The Martian,” I’m not at all surprised that both a publisher and a film company gave it a big “A-Okay.” I think you will too.