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WesternSFA
The Martian
by Andy Weir
Crown Publishing, $24.00, 369pp
Publication Date: February 11, 2014 (originally self-published in 2012)
I admit, I don’t like the cover of The Martian. Looks like some sort of dancing astronaut raver. And that kept me from picking the novel up for a long time. Yeah, I can be that superficial when it comes to my reading choices.

But after hearing all the buzz surrounding this “Apollo 13 on Mars” thriller, it won Goodreads’ “Best Sci Fi” award and is frequently mentioned for Hugo and Nebula Awards, I felt I should put my prejudices aside and see what the fuss is about.

And Andy Weir hooked me from the first sentence:

“Well, I’m pretty much fucked.”  Thus spoke Mark Watney, a member of the third manned mission to Mars, shortly after a freak sandstorm separated him from the rest of his crew and disabled his life support systems. Presumed dead, the rest of his crew has abandoned the mission and headed back towards Earth, leaving Watney stranded on the Red Planet with no means of communication.

But Watney does not give up, even in the face of impossible odds. An engineer, botanist, and endless optimist, he MacGyvers and info-dumps his way to a miraculous rescue.  The novel is mostly told through his journals, with him describing his day-to-day experiments and attempts to jury-rig the team’s abandoned equipment for maximum survival. He rigs fuel cells to generate water from chemical reactions, builds a makeshift greenhouse to grow potatoes and rebuilds a Mars rover for a 3000 kilometer trek across the planet to the site of the next Mars mission.

I never thought I’d find discussions of the nutritional value of potatoes to be so exciting. Seriously.

The science feels well-researched and the solutions always seem plausible.

Once NASA discovers Watney is still alive (using satellite photography,) they work on a plan to rescue, fast-tracking a project to launch a new probe laden with more survival goods to help him last until the next mission. They also help him reestablish communication, preparing him for the lengthy journey to the rendezvous point.

But while I enjoyed the thrilling survival story, I had several quibbles with The Martian.

Sometimes the pacing feels a little bit like Dan Brown’s chapter/cliffhanger/next chapter/resolution formula, however.  Weir avoids Da Vinci Code hackery with Watney’s knowledge and humor, however. In fact, he often switches the cliffhanger trope, ending a chapter with a positive resolution to turn around and start the next chapter with an “Oh my God, I’m going to die.”

I also never doubted the outcome of the story. The Martian is described as Apollo 13 meets Cast Away, and Watney had a sunny, Tom Hanks-esque optimism; no matter how bleak the situation became. It never felt unrealistic, though, and honestly, that’s probably one of the reasons it was such a joy to read. You can only take so much bleakness.

Finally, there were several characters that didn’t seem to have much point. Watney’s fellow crewmen are explored but don’t have much more than a cursory examination. Like the engineer who discovers the method that will allow a supply probe to rendezvous with his old crew, thus allowing them to return to Mars to rescue Watney. He has enough of a role to warrant a description of his plan as well as a few hints at an Asperger’s personality, then he disappears. Conflicts are hinted at within NASA and never developed.

But these problems ultimately didn’t faze me, because I was so invested in Watney’s survival. I may have known how the novel was going to end from the first few pages, but I wanted to read what happened anyway. ~~ Michael Senft

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