I bought this book on my Kindle way back at the beginning of the year, but it took me until after the film release to actually get around to reading it. I’d seen some mixed reviews before-hand from some people who struggled with the level of science in the novel, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
If, like me, you’re a self-confessed science-phobe and are unsure whether this book is for you, do not let this put you off. Yes, this book is packed with meticulously researched technical information about how a human might try to survive in the hostile environment which is Mars. But it’s also an awesome story with one of the most charming, loveable protagonists I’ve read in a long time. Part sci-fi, part thriller and part a heart-wrenching story of survival against all odds, it’s maybe the most original book I’ve read this year. And, you learn stuff too!
For those of you who somehow don’t already know the basic premise of The Martian, it’s the story of Mark Watney, a botanist astronaut who is left stranded on Mars after his crew abandon the Ares 3 mission due to a violent sandstorm. Watney is injured in the storm, and his crewmates leave him behind, mistakenly assuming him dead.
The book opens first person from Watney: “I’m pretty much fucked.” It’s a great, hard-hitting first line, and you may well think that’s the case, but that defeatist attitude doesn’t last long. From the first few pages, Watney is a fighter and it continues throughout the novel. With the odds stacked against him, it could be so easy for him to lose hope, but this plucky survivor does everything he can to battle the extreme conditions, near starvation, lack of oxygen, risk of equipment failure and a myriad of other problems he could encounter. Not to mention, intense isolation for an incredibly long period of time – which could be enough to send some people over the edge on its own.
Not only does Watney fight to survive, but he does it with a brilliant sense of humour, embracing and celebrating his geekiness every step of the way; “Hell yeah I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!” His first person narrative is laden with scientific analysis, but it’s written in such an accessible way, it’s still enjoyable to read.
As the story progresses, Watney’s first-person dialogue is intercepted with chapters relaying events back on earth as NASA begin to realise what has happened. While Watney is no doubt the star of this story, the characters on earth are well-drawn too, and this additional view adds another dimension to the novel. It’s not just Watney fighting alone; he’s got the whole world behind him.
This book looks at progress, science and the interplanetary future with (as far as I know) a reasonably good degree of accuracy and, according to the Washington Post, it “may have saved NASA and the entire space program.” But, more importantly than that, it’s a unique story of survival, and a celebration of the human race. Watney survives dire conditions, all because of the power of his mind, and the innate desire in humans to help others. It’s an instinct which is “so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception” and this book illustrates the power of people coming together perfectly.