Weir, Andy. The Martian.

NY: Random House, 2014.

Okay, so I’ve had this one on my Kindle for awhile now, waiting until I was in the right frame of mind to read it. The reviews were uniformly stellar, so I didn’t want to screw up the experience with distractions. And this week, conditions were just right. I opened the file and went to page one. And, damn, Weir sets the hook quicker than any author I have ever encountered! Two paragraphs in and I was absorbed. For three days, I haven’t done much of anything else but share the hair-raising adventures of Mark Watney, astronaut, as he tries to survive being abandoned on Mars.

When it comes to matters involving the space program, Weir is a nerd’s nerd. He first began posting the chapters of this story for free on a blog site, inviting readers to make suggestions. His method was to create life-threatening problems for his Martian Robinson Crusoe and then work out what the guy would have to do to survive. He developed quite a following with this and when his more techie fans — including some NASA types — contributed comments about how this gadget or that protocol really worked, Weir went back and fixed things in the story. The result is about as close to Real Life as you’re going to find.

Mark was chosen for the six-man Ares 3 mission — an eight-month trip to Mars, another eight months or so of exploration and experiments, and then the long trip home — as much on the basis of his even temper and likability as for his technical skills. For the latter, he’s a general-purpose engineer — the fix-it guy on the crew — as well as the botanist, both of which will turn out to be essential. And how does he become a castaway? A few days after landing and setting up their base, an enormous storm forms that causes the mission to be scrubbed; if they don’t get away now, before their ascent vehicle is blown over, they’ll die. And as they’re struggling to get aboard, the high winds impale Mark with a torn-loose antenna. He’s knocked far afield, his vital-signs monitor zeros out, and they can’t find him. Can’t wait any longer, the MAV is beginning to tip over — gotta go!

Of course, Mark isn’t dead, only lightly wounded and suffering an equipment failure. He doesn’t really expect to survive, though, not at first, and starts a recorded diary so that later arrivals someday will know what happened. He’s got a really nice habitat, though, and all that equipment. . . . Well, he can maybe create oxygen by splitting water. And he can get more water later in other ways. He’s even got a dozen actual potatoes, intended as a morale-booster for the mission’s Thanksgiving dinner. And he knows how to grow things, right? Maybe this is doable after all. Because the Ares 4 landing will take place in only a few years — but in another spot on the planet 3,200 kilometers away. If he can survive that long, and travel that far, it’s conceivable that he could even get home again.

Meanwhile, back in Houston, a young woman monitoring the images from the satellites circling Mars notices unexplained changes around the supposedly empty Ares 3 landing site. A closer look reveals human activity. And she goes tearing off to her boss with the news that Watney, whose memorial service they’ve all recently attended, isn’t as dead as they thought he was. Now if only they could communicate! Well, Mark is amazingly resourceful and he’s got that in hand, too. Remember Pathfinder? Which had a radio? ‘Cause it’s still out there on the Martian surface.

There’s a perhaps surprising amount of humor in the story, too, because that’s just the sort of easygoing, wisecracking person Mark is. He spends much of his down time, waiting for things to recharge and all, watching the ’70s TV shows his commander had brought along for personal entertainment, and listening to her disco recordings and reading her Agatha Christie novels. And his comments regarding her musical tastes in his diary are hilarious. So are his observations regarding duct tape (“Turns out even NASA can’t improve on duct tape”) and various untoward events (“Everything went great right up to the explosion”). Later, when one of the guys at NASA, which is working very, very hard to effect a rescue, wonders what Watney is thinking about at that moment, turns out it’s “How come Aquaman can control whales?” And then there’s the whole “Elrond” thing back in Houston that actually had me giggling.

The most impressive thing about this novel, I think, is the way in which the author explains not only how Mark survives but does it in deep, deep painstakingly realistic detail. (Far more than they could ever begin to cram into the movie.) Everything he does is possible. There are no pseudo-science cop-outs for the sake of the story. Yes, survival alone on Mars also demands almost a supernatural degree of luck, but nothing Mark does as he MacGyvers his way through each difficulty is beyond his abilities and equipment. Now, even though I’ve been reading science fiction for sixty years, and even though I was a cheerleader for the space program, I’m a history major, not a techie. And yet, I actually followed and understood probably three-quarters of what was going on. Weir is a terrific explainer.

This is one of two “Best of the Decade” science fiction novels I’ve read in the past month (the other being Seveneves). If the coming year even begins to approach that level, I’ll be a very happy camper.


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