This is a tension-filled exciting story about astronaut Mark Watney, presumed dead and stranded on Mars after a vicious sandstorm forces the rest of the crew to abandon the mission and take off for Earth. Watney is only wounded, however, and manages to make his way back to temporary safety in “the Hab” or habitat constructed by the astronauts for long-term survival. Mark knows that another mission is due back to Mars in four years, but there is not enough food to last that long, and the ability to communicate by radio was lost in the storm.
After a memorial ceremony for Watney’s death, a sharp NASA officer figures out he is alive, and the race is on for NASA to figure out how to help him before he dies of starvation (the most likely of several possible disastrous scenarios). As Watney himself sums up for us:
“If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.”
In the beginning of the book, and intermittently throughout the story, Watney goes into great detail about what he is doing to enhance his chances of survival. There is a lot of science and technology in his account (in the form of an unconventional and decidedly irreverent mission log book). One can gloss over it and still get the gist of the story, and also understand that Weir has gone to a lot of trouble (and research) to ensure that everything his character does is plausible and scientifically accurate. He also loads these passages with funny, self-deprecating and/or snarky observations so that your eyes don’t have a chance to glaze over. (At the start of the book, he describes the Ares program as “blah, blah, blah.” One could apply his same treatment to the separation of oxygen and hydrogen and nitrogen and blah, blah, blah.)
Fortunately Watney is resourceful and smart and in possession of a great sense of humor and lots of duct tape.
The story switches back and forth between Watney stuck on Mars, with nothing to watch but reruns of tv sitcoms from the 1970’s and tapes of disco music, to the NASA crew on the ground, trying to overcome funding shortages, politics, public pressure, feasibility studies, and time pressures to save Watney. And always we are aware of how short the time is growing until Watney’s resources and luck will totally run out.
Evaluation: If you can read this book at a leisurely pace, or not sneak a look at the ending to alleviate some of the tension, you are a better person than I! This is a great read!
Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, 2014