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The Martian by Andy Weir

Self-published digitially in 2011; published by Crown on February 11, 2014

The Martian is written in a lively voice that I can easily imagine belonging to a frustrated engineer. It isn't an eloquent voice but it isn't meant to be. Mark Watney has a right to feel frustrated as he narrates his story, having been (understandably) left for dead on the surface of Mars by a crew escaping from a hellacious sandstorm. The base in which the crew planned to live is intact but the communications dish Watney needs to contact Earth is destroyed in the storm. Another crew is scheduled to land (although far from his current location) in four years. Watney has enough food to survive for about a year. Seems like the poor guy should starve to death if he doesn't choose a more peaceful death by morphine, but Watney turns out to be a resourceful scientist who doesn't easily give up on life.

New characters are eventually introduced as the action shifts to Earth and to NASA, which eventually notices that the Rover left behind on Mars seems to have moved. The parts of the story that take place on Earth are surprisingly strong in their own way, and a sharp contrast to the individualistic story that Watney tells. Like the rest of the novel, the Earthbound story seems realistic, from the distress that people feel about Watney to the distress they feel at managing a public relations nightmare.

On one level, The Martian is a survival story, sort of an updated Robinson Crusoe on Mars without the monkey. But it's also a pure science fiction story, with a refreshing emphasis on science. There are no zombies here. At the same time, explaining the science doesn't bog down the story, as science-heavy sf too often does. This is fundamentally a story about people and crisis management. Andy Weir put an enormous amount of thought into The Martian, from commemorative stamps honoring Watney that need to be recalled to overtime funding for NASA scientists who work desperately to save his life.

The Martian strikes me as a novel that should have broad appeal. Fans of geek-speak who think science and technical innovation are the most important aspects of sf will find loads to enjoy. Readers who think sf needs to have human interest to differentiate it from a technical manual will find it here in plentiful supply. Readers who only want to spend time with likable characters will love Watney (he's a funny guy). Even readers who like action-filled plots should be happy. The action doesn't consist of battles with aliens using laser swords but the struggle for survival creates a fair amount of tension and keeps the story moving at a good pace. Readers who crave zombies will be disappointed but I suspect most sf fans will be as happy with The Martian as I was.

The Martian ends with a discussion of human nature. Humans can be truly awful to each other, but most of us have an instinctive desire to help one another, even to help complete strangers when lives are at risk, and to risk our own lives to do it. Through Mark Watney, Weir reminds us of our better natures. According to Watney, people who care about other human beings "massively outnumber" people who don't. I think that's probably true. It's a great reminder, movingly illustrated in an emotionally enriching story. I suspect The Martian is destined to be regarded as a classic work of sf. That's pretty remarkable for a book that was originally self-published.


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