Over the past several years, several personalities have taken us on their adventures on television. They get dropped off in remote places with little or nothing to survive except their wits and resourcefulness. One such personality that I particularly enjoy is Les Stroud; his show, Survivor Man. The thing is he always makes it out with a chopper awaiting him at the end of seven to ten day trips. He knows when and where he will be retrieved at the end of his ordeal.
Now, imagine yourself as the lone and unintended inhabitant on another planet such as Mars. Everything is against you. It’s extremely cold, you cannot grow food, the water is frozen under the surface, the air is unbreathable, and the list goes on. Space is a dangerous place.
Andy Weir explores this scenario brilliantly in his novel.
Ares 3, the third manned mission to Mars is in its sixth SOL, or its sixth Martian day on the surface. A day on Mars is about a half hour longer than a day on Earth. The crew of six astronauts are going about their business on the surface of the planet when they receive a warning from NASA that there is a storm approaching their location. At first, it is determined that this storm doesn’t seem to be a threat to the mission. The storm rapidly intensifies and the crew is ordered to abort their mission and get off the surface. A communications dish is then blown off of the Hab (Habitat) and hits astronaut Mark Watney and the wind carries him a long distance from the site. With very little time left, the mission commander tries to locate Mark, but the ever worsening conditions make it impossible to find any trace. Another member of the crew saw Mark hit by the dish. Mark is presumed dead and the five remining crew members launch.
Mark awakens, surprised that he is alive. His suit has been breached, but the breach was sealed with his own blood. With a lot of effort, he manages to return to the landing site and finds that he is now all alone. The single inhabitant of a planet stranded without communications and facing impossible odds, but he is determined to survive somehow.
Other than the communications, the Hab is in good shape, he has two rovers, equipment, and supplies that were intended to keep six people alive on Mars for a month. The only possibility of rescue that he knows of is four years away when the Ares 4 mission is due to arrive 3200 kilometers from his present location.
Everyone has given up Mark for dead. Back on Earth, all of the usual ceremonies are taking place. Speeches commemorating Mark as a hero are made and speculation begins about the efficacy of future missions to Mars.
Meanwhile, back on Mars, Mark goes about the business of surviving in an environment that seems to be trying to kill him at almost every turn. He figures out how to stay alive with the equipment he has on hand, and even figures out how to extend his food supply for a long time. He even has entertainment, but in the form of 1970’s television shows and disco music (much to his chagrin). He also has his training, his education, and most importantly, his sense of humor, and he refuses to lose.
Thanks to the observations of a sharp-eyed tech at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it is soon learned that Mark did indeed survive and efforts to reestablish communications and plans for rescue ensue.
I enjoyed this story so much, I read it in only four days, reading every spare minute that I could find. Almost every page had me on edge wondering what was going to happen next to pose a threat to Mark. But the most impressive thing about The Martian was how seemingly accurate it is. While I am no expert on NASA protocols involving survival on hostile planets, everything that Mark did to seemed plausible to me, from how he was able to make oxygen by splitting water atoms apart, to how he used his own waste and Martian soil to make a potato farm to help extend his food supply.
Another aspect of this book was the sense of humor that Weir injected into the story. The hero definitely has a great sense of humor. He pokes fun at himself and the situation he finds himself in.
I did almost put this book down though. Mark’s account of his time on Mars was in the form of log entries that chronicle his activities. The first five chapters of the book follow this format, by the end of the first chapter it was getting a bit tedious reading “today I did this” and “I am planning to do that” and so on. I did consider setting it aside. In chapter 6 though, the NASA part of the story was introduced and from there it was a nonstop solid science/scifi story that any fan of the space program, or reality based science fiction fan should enjoy. I am glad I stayed with it. The author really did his homework for this one.
I give this novel my highest recommendations as one of the best stories of its kind that I have ever read.
Now, if only someone would pick this one up and make a film.
Well, there it is…