Book Review – Andy Weir’s “The Martian”

Last week I finished reading The Martian, a thrilling science-fiction story involving human survival on planet Mars.  Written by Andy WeirThe Martian is a hauntingly realistic look at just how a person can survive living on the Red Planet, should such an emergency occur.

Andy Weir — The Martian

Set in the year 2035The Martian begins with a tremendous sandstorm on Mars.  The crew of NASA’s Ares 3 mission had just landed on the planet a few days ago, but the strong storm forces them to abort their mission.  The fierce winds are dangerously close to tipping over the rocket that ferries them back to their orbiting spacecraft, Hermes.

As the astronauts are walking to their rocket, a gust of wind breaks loose an antenna, and astronaut Mark Watney is hit and knocked away, His vital signs go offline and the crew believes that he’s dead.  They make an attempt to find him, but the storm is simply too strong and they’re forced to blast off.  They do so unable to recover Watney’s body.  The crew reaches the Hermes, and they begin their long trek back home to Earth.

However, Mark Watney is still alive.

The broken antenna and his blood created a seal around the hole in his spacesuit, and Mark is able to make it back into the habitat and treat his injury.  There’s no communication with NASA as the antenna was destroyed in the storm.  Watney knows that his chances of rescue are incredibly bleak, but he’s forced to analyze his situation and figure out a way to survive as long as possible.  Watney finishes each day by logging his thoughts, ideas and plans for the next day in a journal.  He hopes that one day the journal will be recovered and people will learn what really happened to him.

Thankfully, Watney is a botanist as well as a mechanical engineer.  Using his scientific knowledge, Watney is able to convert part of the habitat into a greenhouse.  He successfully gets bacteria to react with the otherwise “dead” Martian soil, and he’s able to start growing potatoes.  Watney also uses a chemical process to basically extract water from hydrazine, the fuel for their rocket.

Back on Earth, one of the satellite observers notices that there are signs of human activity around the abandoned habitat.  It looks like somebody is still living there, but the satellite images don’t capture photos of any astronauts.

Watney continues to enhance and upgrade the habitat to help him survive for as long as possible.  The nagging problem is that despite his greenhouse, no matter what, he will not be able to grow enough potatoes to keep him alive until the next Ares mission is scheduled to land.

Watney ultimately uses one of the rovers to trek out to the site of the Pathfinder rover.  He recovers it and brings it back to the habitat.  He cannot talk directly to NASA through the Pathfinder, but the rover’s camera still works, and NASA can make it spin around in circles.  Watney is able to begin communicating with NASA by holding up signs and then having NASA spin Pathfinder‘s camera to point at codes that correlate as letters on a grid.  It’s a slow process as it takes many minutes for the signals to travel from the Earth to Mars and then back again, but it’s progress.  NASA ultimately helps Watney configure the rover so that it can use the Pathfinder to relay messages back and forth.  The plan works and Mark is able to type and receive lengthy text messages from NASA.

News of Watney’s survival is deliberately kept away from the crew of the Hermes.  NASA fears that the crew is busy enough dealing with their mission to worry about the guilt of leaving Watney behind.  Besides, it’s not like they can turn around and go back to pick him up.

A plan is created to rush some survival supplies to Mars.  NASA expedites a launch and skips some critical inspections to save time.  The rocket lifts off the launch pad, but vibrations cause the cargo to shift, and that causes the rockets to veer off course and self-destruct.

An engineer at NASA creates a plan for the crew of the Hermes to rescue Watney.  All NASA has to do is launch some supplies to the Hermes as it passes by Earth.  The crew will then continue flying past Earth and then make a return to Mars.  All Watney has to do is make his way to a rocket that’ll be used by the Ares 4 crew.  It’s only some 3,200 kilometers from his habitat.

Mark Watney’s trek across Mars.

The last third of The Martian involves Watney preparing for and making his trek across Mars to reach the rocket.  Problems include navigating around craters, avoiding a dust storm, and recovering after the rover tumbles and rolls down a hill.  After reaching the rocket, Watney has to remove enough components so that the rocket will be able to reach a higher altitude and dock with the Hermes.  The Hermes will be making a fly-by, so Watney only gets one chance to meet with the spacecraft.

In the end, the plan works though there are many moments when Watney is dangerously close to critically failing.  He’s ultimately recovered by the Hermes and rejoins the Ares 3 crew after being alone on Mars for over a year.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Is Andy Weir’s The Martian any good?

Yes!  Absolutely yes!

This is an amazingly fun, scientifically accurate, and quite hilarious (as long as you enjoy sarcasm and mostly dark humor) adventure on planet Mars.  It’s easy to follow most of the math and science as Mark Watney uses his wits, knowledge, and very limited resources to keep surviving to the next day, and the day after that.

It’s easy to cheer for Watney as he overcomes numerous challenges and beats the odds for survival.  This is an extremely likable character, and you’ll spend hours turning the pages and wondering how he’s going to find a way to survive and beat the seemingly unfair challenges in the incredibly hostile environment of Mars.

In a way, The Martian has ruined several other outer space books that I was about to read.  The Martian raised the bar so high, I just know that I’ll be disappointed by other space stories, at least for a while.  Damn you, Andy Weir!  You ruined part of my library by making such an awesome book!

I cannot emphasize and recommend this book enough, especially if you enjoy science, outer space, and survival stories.

On October 2, 2015The Martian was released as a major film starring Matt Damon and directed by science-fiction mastermind Ridley Scott.  It might help some people if you watch the movie before reading the book.  Either way, the film and the book go hand-in-hand.

Go out there and get a copy of The Martian.  It’s well worth your time.

five stars

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