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The Martian: A Novel

The Martian - Andy Weir This review and others are posted at Inspiring Insomnia.

I didn’t need to read more than a couple of lines of the synopsis of The Martian before I knew I had to read this book. I love stories set in space, and in this one, the main character is stranded alone on Mars after his NASA crewmates leave him behind, thinking he’d died in an accident. He has no way to get off the planet and no way to communicate with NASA. His only hope is to find a way to stay alive for several years until the next mission to Mars arrives. This is an amazing set-up, isn’t it? And The Martian had the good fortune to come out around the same time that the film, Gravity, with a similar theme of one person struggling to survive away from Earth, was racking up Oscars.

The story drew me right in. How could this astronaut, Mark Watney, find the means to get oxygen, water, and food on a barren planet? How will he maintain the will to survive alone for years, when the chances for his rescue seem hopeless? If he does manage to make it until the next mission arrives, how will he find them? The Martian is written in the form of Watney’s diary, so we are right there with him as he gets into planning mode. And he IMMEDIATELY gets into this mode, after a thorough assessment of his dire situation. He calculates the amount of water and food he needs for the next few years, down to the liter and calorie. He is trained as an engineer and botanist, so if all goes according to plan, he can maintain his equipment to provide oxygen and water, and he has the ability to grow potatoes.

I initially found all of this fascinating. It reminded me a lot of Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis, in that the author made what could have been very dry facts seem interesting. But after a time, it got to be too much. I assume Andy Weir did an enormous amount of research for this book, because it reads like a step-by-step instruction manual for how to survive on Mars. But that’s where the problems started to set in for me. It began to become a never-ending series of: “This terrible thing X happened, but I fixed it by doing Y.” I started to become unconcerned for Watney, because this guy had an answer for everything.

Very early on – TINY SPOILER HERE – the book switches out of diary mode, and moves to NASA headquarters. Through a major stroke of luck, an employee viewing satellite images discovers that Watney is alive, and unbeknownst to him, they begin to plan a dangerous rescue mission, with a high likelihood for failure. These scenes provided a nice break from the increasing monotony of Watney’s experience on Mars.

Through everything, Watney has an incredibly (and almost unbelievably) positive outlook. He never seemed to despair, and he never seemed very angry. He approached each day with a list of tasks that he methodically checked off. At times, he seemed to find a good deal of humor in his situation. Maybe these are qualities that astronauts need to possess, but it made it difficult to sympathize with his plight.

Despite my few reservations, I would recommend this to any sci-fi fan. There are good reasons why it has over 5k ratings on Goodreads with a nearly 4.40 average.