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By Andy Weir
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
The Martian, Andy Weir's energetic debut novel that reads like a MacGyver/Robinson Crusoe/Star Trek mash-up, with a little bit of the dry superhero humor of The Tick thrown in for good measure, was self-published in 2012. Originally, Weir posted the e-book on his website for free. When fans requested a Kindle version, Weir created one and offered it for the price of 99 cents. It caught on quickly, rising to the top of the Kindle sci-fi chart, selling 35,000 copies in three months, and eventually attracting the audiobook publisher Podium Publishing and the traditional publisher Crown, who published it in hardcover earlier this year.
But The Martian is more than a heartwarming indie-lit success story. The happy truth is that it's really good. Weir has created a memorable character and placed him in a high-concept plot that remains entertaining and suspenseful from the first page to the last.
We meet Mark Watney on what must be the worst day of his life. Part of NASA's third manned mission to Mars, he's been left for dead on the Red Planet after a piece of antenna impaled his space suit and the other members of his crew were forced to evacuate. He has no way to communicate with NASA, and he doesn't have enough food to last until the next planned mission to Mars, or any way to get across the planet to that mission's landing site. There's no one else on the planet. No martians, no other astronauts. The other members of his team are en route back to earth. If Watney wants to survive, he's going to have to do so with his own ingenuity, hard work and luck.
Watney's original role on the mission was that of the botanist, and he puts those skills to work, becoming the first farmer on Mars. He works out how many potatoes he will need to survive until the next mission arrives, then sets about growing them. He fertilizes Martian soil with his own poop, mixes it with a bit of Earth soil his mission brought along, and repeats this process until he has enough good dirt for a small farm. Then he cuts up the potatoes they brought along for Thanksgiving and plants them.
Once he's got the potato farm up and running, he needs to find a way to communicate with NASA. He drives his rover to the last known site of an unmanned probe, retrieves it, and uses the on-board camera to communicate. Soon, NASA has devised a way to send him data files through the probe.
Of course, nothing is so easy in this book. As soon as Watney has the farm figured out, and it seems inevitable that he'll have enough food to survive, a small explosion causes a rupture in the Hab and puts all of that in jeopardy. The moment he comes to take his daily communications with Earth for granted, a frayed wire puts him in the dark once more. And those are just the first two of the many, many problems that occur during the more than a year that Watney spends on Mars. And of course, with each new problem Watney's training, personality and creativity align to see him through, only to be foiled by another unforeseen circumstance a few pages later.
I won't venture any further into spoiler territory here, but I'll say that I found the ending somewhat predictable, and in the last third of the book the endless twists, turns and last-minute death-defying maneuvers get repetitive. But the final scene proves resonant and hopeful. I couldn't help but agree with Weir's sentiment that having someone like Watney to root for might prove a unifying experience for humanity. All in all, The Martian reads like what it professes to be, a space odyssey written by a self-proclaimed geek who takes obvious joy in puzzling out the improbable situation he's inserted his protagonist into. This one is highly recommended, especially for fans of sci-fi and speculative fiction.
Out of 10: 9