SURVIVAL. It’s an impulse hardwired into us as humans. The idea of separating an individual from his peers and civilization and pitting him against the forces of nature is the launching point for many, many stories, such as Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, and Life of Pi by Yann Martel. There are also motion pictures that have used this theme, Cast Away and All Is Lost, and film versions of Robinson Crusoe and Life of Pi.
Speculative fiction writers picked up this narrative theme early, pitting man against the unforgiving vacuum of space and the alien worlds scattered throughout its dark reaches. Stories like Marooned by Martin Caidin, last year's The Explorer by James Smythe, and this year’s Oscar- nominated Gravity, all tell stories of individuals at odds with the harsh environs of space. The Martian, by Andy Weir, is about a man’s struggle to survive on the desolate surface of Mars.
Ares 3 is NASA’s third manned mission to Mars. On day six of the planned 31-day mission, NASA discovers that a huge dust storm, larger and more powerful than anything they had anticipated, is moving towards the Ares habitat. If they don’t lift off immediately, the Mars ascent vehicle (MAV) will be damaged and unable to fly. As the crew makes its way to the MAV, Mark Watney, the team’s biologist/engineer, is hit by shrapnel as the communications array disintegrates in the storm. The medical officer checks Watney’s bio-monitor, but it is dead and the last signal received showed no respiration and no pulse. While an attempt is made to locate Watney’s body, visibility is nonexistent and there simply is no time to look without stranding the rest of the crew. Reluctantly, the Ares 3 crew leaves Mars without him.
Shortly after the Ares 3 crew escapes from the Mars surface, Watney regains consciousness. He is injured and his bio-monitor has been destroyed. He makes his way back to the habitat and assesses his situation: he is alive; he has no radio (The communications array was destroyed in the storm.); he has shelter and atmosphere to protect him from the Martian environment; and he has the food and water that was planned for six people for the entire mission (Actually, he has nearly twice that amount due to NASA preparing for possible problems.). It’s a good start, but will it be enough? Mark needs to figure out a way to stay alive long enough to be rescued--and the planned landing for Ares 4 is years away.
First-time author Weir creates a believable situation and its challanges, then places a memorable character within it. Weir researched the situations and their solutions to ensure the book would be as scientifically accurate as possible. The result is an exciting, edge-of-your-seat thriller combined with real-world “MacGyver-like” problem-solving, set on the desolate and unforgiving surface of the red planet.
Mark Watney is a likeable character just smart enough to be able to solve the problems he is facing. While the premise of the story may seem grim, the novel is anything but, and Watney has a wicked sense of humor that shines through at the most opportune moments and skewers everything from '70s television and music (specifically disco) to his crew mates and NASA.
While this is a top notch speculative fiction novel, it can--and will--appeal to a much wider audience.