I’ve been looking at different landscapes in the books I have chosen to feature this month but none have been as harsh as that which is featured in Andy Weir’s best-selling book The Martian. The planet of Mars is totally hostile to human life and when, because they thought he was dead, Mark Watney is left there by the crew of his space mission he has to overcome the hostile environment to survive – and maybe someone will be able to come and save him. Fortunately Mark is a man of many talents and a lot of knowledge so he is able to battle all the things which the planet throws at him, but it isn’t easy.
This is real science fiction – no fantasy elements, no little green men but just a situation which could exist given what we know now. I’m not a scientist so I can’t absolutely guarantee that the science and technology in this book is accurate but it FEELS accurate, is consistent within itself and actually is very similar to what is described in Chris Hadfield’s excellent book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. A lot about this book reminded me of the science fiction of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke but definitely with a lighter style.
This book has one of the great beginnings. Mark Watney is left stranded on Mars after the rest of his expedition has to evacuate quickly – they think he is dead. His log is the story of how he is going to survive when completely cut off from everyone and with no communication – he is dependent on his life support systems, he doesn’t have enough food and no one else is scheduled to visit the planet for four years. This book is about how he resolves those issues, aided on occasion by the folks back on earth. I’ve seen this book described as “nerd in space” and certainly there is a lot of problem solving (even using duct tape so you can see how realistic it is). If you liked the bits in the Apollo 13 film when they had to resolve issues by cutting up the cover of their flight manual and using that material then you are going to love this.
What makes the book a gripping read, however, is Watney’s narrative voice. He is capable but irreverent. Some of his comments made me laugh out loud – there is a running gag that all the music he can find to listen to is an ex-colleague’s collection of disco music. He tackles problems, adjusts to his situation and even writes letters to his departed crewmates. In between Watney’s log entries are bits of the story from the point of view of those on earth and the crew that left him as they too try to solve the problem of how to get him back. Thankfully the author avoids any bits from the point of view of his waiting family and there is no wife/girlfriend figure to tear at the emotions – this is Watney’s story.
I could not put this book down. I was absolutely gripped. On occasions I was tearful and on others I laughed. This is the ultimate feel good/triumph over tragedy novel.
The thing which puts this book above so many science fiction novels, and I have read quite a few, is the humour. Watney is pouring his soul out to his diary and he needs to laugh rather than cry and you will laugh with him. Every now and then though something bad happens and you realise how perilous his survival is and how unlikely it is that he will be saved. On earth and in the mission control team there are doubts too and some people don’t want to take the risks that would be necessary to retrieve their missing astronaut. When China is approached for assistance and agrees to help their scientists rue the loss of ground-breaking experiments which may never happen again just to rescue one individual. These moments are also important because these are the discussions that need to be had in a situation like this.
This is, however, a book about a hero. A man who is forced to survive in a hostile environment and who is able to do so. You experience the highs and lows of his fight for survival with him and you laugh and cry with him too. Without the excellent characterisation of Mark Watney this would be only a good science fiction yarn but with it it is an exceptional one
I read this book some time ago and I have actually seen the film too – the book is better but the film is OK in my opinion.