My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If you like suspenseful science-fiction, humor, and are fascinated by science, you must read this book. I’m not kidding.
The premise is a simple cast-away story, except that it takes place on Mars—an environment in which a human can’t last for seconds without a lot of properly functioning technology. Astronaut Mark Watney is left for dead when a severe storm blows in, impaling him with a piece of metal, knocking out his vital statistics monitor, and blowing him into a drift. Having lost visual contact with Watney, showing no vital statistics, and facing the toppling of the crew’s escape vehicle by high winds, the mission commander decides that she can’t risk the lives of the entire crew to cart Watney’s body back home. The thing is; Watney isn’t dead.
The book is a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows associated with events that nearly kill Watney—either in an instant or by making his long-term survival impossible. The botanist / engineer must figure out how to survive for four years (until the next Mars mission is due—if it doesn’t get cancelled) with less than six months of supplies. (The mission was supposed to be one month but was aborted in the first week, but there were five other crew members whose rations were left behind.) If you think Tom Hanks had it bad in Cast Away, imagine having to produce food on Mars.
This book taps into the visceral feeling that works so well in the movie Gravity (but Weir does more homework on the science.) For tension, it’s hard to beat being adrift in space, utterly isolated from one’s species—or any species for that matter–and knowing you will die when your resources run out.
The main character, who is the only character for the first six chapters or so, is intensely likable. Mark Watney is funny, intelligent, self-deprecatingly humble, and can confidently problem solve in the midst of any crisis. If there’s a critique of the realism of this story (as sci-fi goes it is extremely realistic), it’s that Watney is preternaturally skilled at adapting to complete solitude. However, I don’t deduct for this, because if it showed him at the depths of despair that someone in his circumstance would inevitably go through, it wouldn’t be nearly as pleasing a book to read. If you’ve read a lot about sensory deprivation and / or what happens to prisoners over long stints in solitary confinement, I’d suspend the disbelief that might come from that knowledge and just accept that Watney is exceedingly good at saying, “Pity-party over. It’s time to make this work.” In short, humorous Watney is just a lot more fun to read than would be a despondent astronaut.
I think I’ve been clear that this is an outstanding book, and everyone should read it. I guess if you absolutely hate science (of any kind–because there’s botany, biology, physics, chemistry, engineering, etc. all rolled up into this book), you may find that it’s hard to stick with the glut of scientific / engineering discussions coming at you. Still, you shouldn’t hate science that much—what the hell is the matter with you. Weir writes in a readable style and the reader doesn’t get awash in minutiae. (For example, Watney even names the unit kilowatt-hour/sol [sol=a Mar’s day] the “Pirate-ninja” to make it more palatable and humorous.)
Read it. You’ll like it. Also, don’t wait because the movie is supposed to come out in the Fall.