Previously published on Writing In My Head on December 29, 2014.
You’re on a mission to Mars, and all your crewmates have left the planet, leaving you behind, because they think you’re dead.
This is the premise of The Martian, probably one of the best science-fiction books I’ve read in a long time.
The plot is as simple as can be: a dude is left behind on Mars and must survive until others can come rescue him. It’s Robinson Crusoe for the space age. It’s a story that’s been explored in many different settings and times, but it’s always the surviving character itself who makes or breaks the story.
In this case, Mark Watney is our survivor, and he’s one hell of a dude to watch. He’s ingenious, stubborn and hilarious. Most of the book is made up of his log in the first person, with some book sections in the third person for the people at NASA and his crewmates on the ship Hermes.
It’s Watney’s voice that carries the story. Despite almost insurmountable odds (how do you grow food on Mars when your supplies disappear? How do you communicate with Earth when your communications are down? How do you drive for a month without going insane?), he manages to solider on, and do so with optimism and humour. Because, I guess, if you allow yourself to fall victim to fatalism and cynicism, you wouldn’t last very long, alone, for a year and a half on Mars…
Not being a scientist of any kind, I can’t talk about the scientific accuracy of the book. It’s all very believable though, with just a touch of future technology that’s not so unimaginable today. There’s never any mention of the year, but it could be next year, or it could be in 20. It makes the book approachable that way, and any science is filtered through the lens of an actual human being applying it, so we get a lot more information about results than about math, which I appreciated.
The author made Whatney really adept at jerry-rigging anything. Mechanical engineers (my brother is one) are really good at thinking out of the box to solve mechanical problems. So you’ll often exclaim, “Ah! if this was on Earth, he’d totally do the same thing.” And often, that involves duct tape.
Of course, duct tape is as useful for holding things together on Mars as it is on Earth:
I unravelled Martinez’s bed and took the string outside, then taped it to the trailer hull along the path I planned to cut. Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshipped.
Here’s just a little bit of the humour that colours every entry in Whatney’s log. It’s hard to imagine those snide remarks, blogging-like comments and other funny bits and pieces not being there, because otherwise, the book would just be an oppressive mess of loneliness.
This novel is an amazing tale of the human spirit for exploration, knowledge and survival. It shows the lengths to which we’re willing to go to survive, and how thousands, millions of people can come together to care about something other than them. The book believes in the nobility of the human spirit: the spirit that pushes us to risk our lives for others, to take chances just to learn something new and extraordinary, and to put our blind faith in the people we love.
I’ll give you the same warning I’ve read everywhere: make sure you have plenty of time aside to read this book. This is not the kind of book you’ll be happy to just read bits of on the bus. You will want to read it until you finish it or fall asleep. I read it in 2 sittings. The pace is extraordinary and you just. can’t. stop.