While I picked up the ARC of this several months ago, I almost didn't bother to give it a read. The "Apollo 13 meets Cast Away" tagline sounded interesting, but it also left me wondering just how Andy Weir was going to pull it off. After all, both of those movies succeeded largely based on the charisma of Tom Hanks (which can't exactly be captured on the page), and the true story element of Apollo 13 was responsible for much of that story's dramatic tension.
A fellow reviewer tossed MacGyver into the tagline mix, however, and suddenly I was curious enough to give The Martian: A Novel a chance, Hey, what can I say . . . but I'm glad I did! This was an absolutely stellar read, one that is full of action, drama, humor, and real emotional engagement. It's a testament to Weir's storytelling that, going into the last ten pages, I honestly wasn't sure whether Mark Watney was really going to survive.
The story wastes no time getting started, and the situation is almost as exceedingly dire as it is tragic. It's also a very lonely, claustrophobic start to the tale, with Mark the only character in a very small-scale drama. He's got a habitat, a rover, and a spacesuit. That's it. That's all. He can't even communicate with his ex-crewmates, much less anyone back home. He has a plan for sustaining himself by cultivating the potatoes NASA sent for Thanksgiving dinner, but it involves a lot of dirt, a lot of feces, a lot of urine, and some dangerous tampering with his life support systems. In the meantime, he has a USB stick full of disco tunes, a second full of 70s TV episodes, and a third full of murder mysteries.
Just when you start to wonder how long Weir can maintain that kind of tension, we're finally transported back to Earth for the other half of the narrative. The world is in mourning for the lost astronaut, with Mark a fixture on just about every news program and talk show. When a SatCon search for his body instead turns up evidence of his survival, politics and emotion begin a battle that carries through right to the end. With all due respect to Mark's struggle - and this is one of the most fascinating survival stories you're likely to encounter - it's the Earthly drama that really sells the story, especially once it takes on a multinational dimension.
• How much do you tell the public, and how much can you really hide from them?
• Is it better to let his team think the've lost a crewmate, or to tell them they abandoned a man to his death?
• Do you plan for a sustenance mission, rescue mission, or retrieval?
• Most importantly, what is the life of one man worth, especially when the odds of survival are so astronomically stacked against him?
There are some startling twists and setbacks to the story throughout, both on Mars and Earth, which keep the tension high and the reader guessing. There's also a lot of science and technical detail that I'm sure may try the patience of some readers, but which I found fascinating - even if I didn't always understand it. The journal style narration of Mark's story is important, in that it's his only form of communication for a very long time, and it's more realistic than if he were to set out to write his own story. Plus, that off-the-cuff, automatic permanent recording of his spoken thoughts allows for some moments of gallows humor that really help to humanize the astronaut and the scientist.
If you are at all curious, then make the time for The Martian: A Novel. It's an amazing story that works as a human drama, science fiction adventure, and a sort of survival manifesto. Really, give it a read. You won't regret it. This is a read that is (if you'll excuse one last space pun) really out of this world.
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