‘The Martian’: Robinson Crusoe meets Apollo 13

TheMartianCoverI recently read Andy Weir’s novel: ‘The Martian‘.  Weir’s book is a self publishing success story.  An admitted life long geek, he enjoyed thoroughly researching how a mission to Mars might work and what might go wrong with it.  He originally published the book, in serialized form, on his web site.  In response to reader requests, he put it in a Kindle book on Amazon.

It was so popular he was offered a deal with a traditional publisher and a movie deal, almost simultaneously.  The version I read was a Kindle book published by Broadway Books.  The film, which is directed by Ridley Scott, and starring Matt Damon, will be coming out in October.

I could write a few paragraphs describing the basic premise of the story, but I think it will be easier to just call your attention to the movie trailer.  It does a pretty good job at getting the basic situation across.

I’m very much looking forward to the movie.

But as to the book itself, it was amazing.  If you enjoyed Castaway and Apollo 13, think of this story has a combination of those stories, but with the difficulties for the central character immeasurably higher.  Mark Watley is stranded on Mars, millions of kilometers and years away from any conceivable source of help, in an environment where the slightest misstep can kill him.  At the beginning no one even knows that he’s still alive.

The initial situation is so desperate, the circumstances do dire, that you viscerally feel Mark Watley’s isolation and loneliness.  Most of the story is about his ingenuity in jury rigging systems to survive.  It’s both a desperate tale of survival and a geek fest.

If you enjoy reading about possible Mars missions, you’ll love this book.  To say that the author has done his homework is a major understatement.  If you’re familiar with Robert Zubin’s writings, the mission format in the book is a modified form of the Mars Semi-Direct plan.  The main modification that stands out to me is having one interplanetary transport vehicle both ways that uses a low-thrust Vasimr engine to reduce the transit time between planets.

The details of the mission plan become crucial plot points.  For example, one of the goals of the story is for Watley to get the next mission’s Mars Ascent Vehicle, which is already on the Mars producing fuel for that future mission, and crucially, has the ability to communicate with NASA on Earth.

The author, Weir, has very close familiarity with, or has thoroughly thought about, the detailed workings of a lot of the mission equipment, including how spacesuit and habitat environmental systems work, how communications systems work, and the difficulty of growing crops in the Martian environment.

Most of the story is told from a first person perspective as we read Watley’s day to day journal of his ordeal.  (Well, actually the sol to sol journal, since it takes place on Mars; a “sol” is a Martian day.)  We read as he conceives plans, implements them, sometimes succeeds, and sometimes fails, occasionally with devastating consequences.  It also allows the character’s personality to come out, and Weir manages to make Watley, who has a very strong sense of humor, a character we very much care about.

Periodically, Weir backs up into third person omniscient mode.  Often this is to show us what’s going on at NASA back on Earth, or with the other astronauts on the return flight to Earth.  But occasionally it’s to describe a developing situation that will eventually turn into a deadly one for Watley, such as a seal that is about to give out on the airlock.  We then switch back to his journal, watching to see if he will realize the danger in time, or experience another catastrophe.

I found this book to be well written, using first person narrative when it was most useful, but not being afraid to shift into other viewpoints as necessary.  I also found the scientific and technological discussions accessible, although you should be warned that they are a major part of the book.  People who don’t enjoy those types of discussions may want to wait for the movie.

In sum, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys hard science fiction, or who is interested in the details of how a Mars mission might work, including the details of how the major systems might work.  I don’t expect the movie to get into the technical details nearly as much as the book did, so if you’re interested in them, reading is the way to go.  (Not that you can’t watch the movie too; I know I definitely plan to.)