Astronaut Mark Whatney got the chance of a lifetime when he was picked to join the third manned mission to Mars. But after they landed, things went wrong. A freak dust storm far beyond anything the crew anticipated nearly destroyed the landing site. The crew was forced to leave the planet, but Mark was cut off. Now, he is stranded on the surface of Mars with no means of communication, no help scheduled to come for three Earth years, and only his wits to survive.
So we meet Mark at the beginning of Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian. Weir, a computer programmer turned author, first self-published The Martian online in 2011 and was then given a contract in 2014, to much acclaim. A movie is set to premier in November, starring Matt Damon at Mark Whatney. (Not exactly how I pictured him, but I’ll reserve judgment. Interestingly, both Matt Damon and female lead Jessica Chastain starred in Interstellar.)
For some reason, I’ve always found Mars-based fiction to be a bit dry. I’m not sure why; maybe it’s just bad luck. But The Martian was a refreshing change. Mark Whatney is relatable and funny with his frequent wisecracks and gallows humor. He’s a genius at innovating his way out of problems, but he can and does make mistakes that nearly cost him his life.
Andy Weir worked hard to make sure that the challenges Mark faces are all plausible and not contrived, though often resulting from unintended consequences of his own actions. I thought this was pulled off brilliantly, and I understood the science behind each problem well. The only serious mistake I noticed was that Mr. Weir forgets that plants actually have a lower tolerance for high carbon dioxide* levels than humans do, and Mark, as a botanist, should have known this, which would have complicated one of his projects. Other than that, I didn’t see anything I absolutely couldn’t believe.
I was surprised how long it was possible to survive on Mars with limited resources and damaged equipment, but the science works, and so does the science of how to avoid certain death again and again. The constant twists and setbacks made the book exciting to the very finish and still left me wanting to see what happened next. The Martian is possibly the best example of strict hard science fiction I’ve ever read.
My rating: 5 out of 5.
*The reason for this seems to be that the plant doesn’t need to keep the cellular structure of its leaves as open to the air with higher carbon dioxide concentrations. This reduces the evaporation rate of water, which lowers the rate at which water is brought up from the roots, and (the real killer) the plant gets fewer dissolved nutrients from the soil. Mark Whatney should have maintained his habitat at about 1200 ppm (about three times the current level in Earth’s atmosphere) for maximum plant growth.