The Martian starts with a soon-to-be-classic opening line: “I’m pretty much fucked.” One of humanity’s first manned missions to Mars has encountered a dust storm stronger than their base and their return vehicle can withstand. During the hasty evacuation, a freak accident incapacitates one of the crew of six; even more freakishly, it does not kill him, though it vents all of the air from his suit. The rest of the crew can’t find him in the dust; the data they receive from his suit indicate that he’s dead; the rising storm threatens to prevent their launch from the surface. They have to leave, or the whole crew will perish. So they do.
Mark Watney, the abandoned astronaut, regains consciousness some time later and assesses his situation:
I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days.
If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah. I’m fucked.
The rest of the book is a straightforward story of how Watney gets out of his predicament. There’s tension, because Watney is in an extremely difficult situation and he occasionally makes a mistake that worsens things; but not too much tension, because it is clear from early on that The Martian is not the kind of book in which the protagonist dies.
It’s fun, exciting reading, and I sped through it in about a day and a half. Weir cares a lot about the science of eking out a precarious existence on Mars, and his attention to detail gave me confidence as a reader that the author wasn’t fiddling with the physics or the chemistry just to get his story where he wanted it.
Weir tells his story at first through Watney’s logs, and then just as I was getting tired of only having Watney for company, he introduces chapters on Earth and in space with the other members of Watney’s mission. Readers get to see both sides of attempts to rescue Watney, which helps advance the story and give it a greater range. Weir writes vividly about the parts of the story that interest him — the setting, the physical challenges Watney faces, and sometimes the search for solutions back on Earth. He writes snappy dialogue, too.
The Martian is not a book of great character depth. That’s just not the story that Weir wants to tell, nor is a broody, introspective type likely to have made it through NASA training and a two-year journey to the red planet. The politics, even office politics, portrayed in the book are very simple. It felt like some of the bits of dialogue had an unwritten “Boo-yeah take that, Authority Figure!” just waiting to drop onto the page. A crucial plot turn depends on a low-level minion getting a nearly immediate meeting with a top NASA official; that was things in the book that most tested my suspension of disbelief. Weir is better at a realistic portrayal of the Martian environment than of earthbound conflicts.
These shortcomings are easy to overlook. The Martian is an exciting, bumpy ride all the way through. Buckle up, and good luck getting back home!