Andy Weir describes himself as “Science Fiction Author and general science geek” with an interest in relativistic physics, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight. The Martian is his first novel, originally self-published in 2011, and now, in edited/re-written form, published by Random House in February 2014. He has a number of other short stories (especially the much-translated “The Egg”) to his name, a link to his website where you can read those is below.
The premise of the The Martian is simple – as Mark Watney, the main protagonist puts it: “The Ares Program. Mankind reaching out to Mars to send people to another planet for the very first time and expand the horizons of humanity blah blah blah. The Ares 1 crew did their thing and came back heroes. They got the parades and fame and love of the world. Ares 2 did the same thing, in a different location on Mars. They got a firm handshake and a hot cup of coffee when they got home. Ares 3. Well, that was my mission. Okay, not mine per se. Commander Lewis was in charge. I was just one of her crew. Actually, I was the very lowest ranked member of the crew. I would only be 'in command' of the mission if I were the only remaining person.
What do you know? I'm in command.”
You see, the Ares 3 mission had to be aborted due to a severe sand storm on Mars. And during the evacuation from the Hab the crew was supposed to inhabit for the duration of their stay to the MAV (Mars ascent vehicle) an antenna tore lose, hit (and in parts skewered) Mark. Having lost visual contact, not being able to find him, and his (damaged) suit incorrectly indicating that he was dead the commander, with extreme resistance, gave command to take off to save the rest of her team.
Mark agrees that this was the correct decision, albeit one that now leaves him the sole human on Mars, with minor injuries, a functioning infrastructure (minus comms rig), not enough food until Ares 4 arrives, and no ride home. Just peachy...
The rest of the story describes Mark's (and, once they realise what has happened, NASA's) efforts to stay alive. He's lucky that he's the engineer and the botanist of the mission – both specialities come in very handy in his battle for survival against substantial odds.
Oh, and just to confirm – the Martian of the title is Mark, no little green men involved here. I haven't double checked the details, but all the technology, calculations and modifications appear feasible and sound (if sometimes optimistic), and so does the approach to the Mars missions (everything is sent and landed separately from the crew) so this can, in my opinion, be considered Hard SF.
The story is told in log entries by Mark, dated in Sols (ie Mars days), except for some inserts displaying activities by NASA, and by Mark's mission colleagues on their long and unhappy trip back to Earth; these are told in classic 3rd person form.
There are loads of calculations on how to survive the time to the next expedition – the main challenge are calories, as he has enough protein and vitamins and air; to create more calories he requires soil which he can make, and water which is trickier... never mind something to plant and grow. And things spiral from there, as he continues to modify and change the environment and technology at his disposal to use and abuse it to his benefit. Some of the solutions are actually really rather clever, and surprising, whilst other parts come across at times a bit MacGyver In Space, with added science, of course...
I liked the narrator's voice - smart, snarky, clever, sarcastic, ironic. and for someone facing death unless he pulls himself out of the swamp by his own hair, surprisingly laid back. Or maybe focused. Staring death in the face either brings despair, or pathological focus trying to avoid this fate. Including the lackadaisical voice:
“I suppose I'll think of something. Or die.'
Expect a lot of sarcasm and rather dark humour, to the point where even Mark meta-comments on that! I was left wondering about the psychology of someone in such a situation. Some of the protagonist's reaction comes across as rather inhuman and pathological. A 'normal' humans would fall into a hole of despair once in a while, even one which has been chosen, based on his temper and psychological make-up to be an Astronaut, and to be the catalyst to keep his crew mates a team during such a long duration mission.
Having said that I have to confess that I did not appreciate some of the language, or maybe rather tone of the interactions with NASA (via Pathfinder, nevertheless! - sorry for the spoiler!) - it comes across needlessly puerile and unprofessional for someone as highly trained, and intelligent, and capable as Watney. Actually there are a number of areas where the actions of the Astronauts come across less than professional/disciplined to the level that I would expect them to be from what I know of Astronaut training and behaviour. But in the end this is a work of fiction, and it helps the story, at least the behaviour part.
Ignoring the slight quibble above I have to say that overall I really enjoyed this book – for a first novel this is great stuff, and I can really recommend it, even if I felt that, at some points it actually becomes tiring that for every problem solved there needs to be another one popping up, as if ingenuity is not enough of a story in itself. Yes, I know this is the topic of the book, but at times it felt over-egged - survival and/through ingenuity would make for a great story in itself, so all this drama added on top is actually sometimes over the top.
Out in February 2014, although you can (and should) pre-order it now – trust me, it will have you root for Mark from the first to the last page, whilst frequently laughing out loud!
More Andy Weir
Title: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Author URL: http://www.galactanet.com/writing.html
Reviewer URL: http://thierstein.net
Publisher: Random House
Publisher URL: ??
Publication Date: ??
Review Date: 131009
Price: UKP tbd
Topic: Space Exploration
Topic: Hard SF
Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.