The Martian by Andy Weir does not read like science fiction. Of course we know it is sci-fi because we have not had and do not have an astronaut living on Mars. However, because the author sticks to technology that we already, pretty much, have available, and because travel in space as described in this book is still in about the same exploratory stage as we are in right now, the story reads as science. In this story, Mark Whatney goes to Mars on the Aries 3 Mission from NASA with five other astronauts. The mission lands successfully on Mars, the main habitat “tent” called the “Hab” is set up, and all life support is connected. The six astronauts have claimed their hammocks and set up the tools for their various duties on the mission.
Mars, however, seems to reject them. Violent dust storms are common on Mars and could destroy their transport home and strand all the astronauts if strong enough, and the storm that suddenly arrives is very strong. It is decided between the Aries 3 Commander and NASA that the mission will be aborted and that everyone must suit up and head back to the ship to return to earth. It is a huge disappointment for such a well-planned and expensive mission but NASA is always “safety first” even if mostly because the public would turn against them and funding would dry up.
Everyone, once suited, and after grabbing only essential items, heads out the “Hab” airlock for the ship. Mark Whatney, the mission’s engineer and botanist is last out and as he moves through the storm towards the ship, an antenna breaks off some piece of equipment and pierces his EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) suit. He is blown over and lies, partially buried in sand, O2 leaking out into the thin Martian atmosphere, which is incapable of sustaining a human. The crew believes Mark to be dead (which they check by an up close and personal inspection of his situation) and they regretfully, but necessarily, board their ship and leave Mars.
But we find that Mark is not dead. His blood has clotted around the antenna and sealed the hole in his suit. When he comes to he is alone on Mars and, since the antenna which has pierced his suit is part of the satellite array which was destroyed, he is unable to communicate with either the ship or with NASA.
What would you do? Would you end it all quickly or would you make plans for surviving the four years between that moment and when the next mission arrives? Well we can guess that Mark chose to live because otherwise there would be no book. After that it is a fascinating journey through a stark landscape with an astonishingly cheerful and adaptive and quintessentially American engineer/botanist who has an enormous set of very sophisticated supplies and equipment at his sole disposal, but enough food for only one of his four years on Mars.
I can’t tell you how it ends (because it would make you very angry) but I can tell you that this is a unique book, sort of Gravity, but on a planet and over an extended period of time. I can also tell you that Mark’s successes and setbacks and the extreme challenges of having Mars as an adversary will keep you on the edge of your seat (to borrow a compliment from the world of movies). It makes us think much more realistically about what learning to be pioneers in space will involve and it would make me even more determined to keep my feet on terra firma, but I bet the book will not have that affect on everyone. This is not fine literature with subtle themes and symbolisms, but it is a very absorbing story and the author’s writing skills are excellent enough that they do not ever get in the way.
By Nancy Brisson
<a href=https://plus.google.com/10640005355488737390?=author>Nancy Brisson</a>