By Andy Weir
American astronaut Mark Watney is one of the first people to set foot on Mars. But, just six days after he and his crew members triumphantly arrive, a freak sandstorm blows in, forcing them to evacuate. As the astronauts race to their escape vehicle, Watney is impaled by a runaway antenna—and, in the commotion that follows, left for dead. He survives the impact, and awakens in his spacesuit, alone, with no way to communicate with Earth or the crew. This is the premise of The Martian, from first-time novelist Andy Weir.
What follows plays out like an episode of the reality-TV show Survivorman, shot in an especially exotic locale. Watney, a biologist and engineer, first turns his attention to food and water, rigging up a way to grow potatoes on the floor of his dome-shaped habitat. He drives a rover out to find Pathfinder, NASA’s ancient Mars explorer (launched in 1996), and hacks into its computer to contact Earth. He turns his urine into drinking water and, when something breaks, he fixes it with duct tape. After Watney reinstates contact with Earth, and then with his departed ship, a daring plan is cooked up to rescue him.
Weir, a computer programmer-turned-novelist, doesn’t spare his readers the back-of-the-napkin math involved in many of Watney’s calculations; in fact, it’s these scenes he seems to relish writing the most. Fleshing out his protagonist, however, is an afterthought and, as a result, Watney’s personality is as thin as the Martian atmosphere. Upon realizing that his crewmates have left Mars without him—almost certainly dooming him to the loneliest death any human has ever known—Watney’s response is a mild: “Boo!” (But his habitat was still in one piece after the sandstorm: “Yay!”) Watney seems likeable enough, yet apparently has no family, friends, lovers or pets back on Earth that might give him a reason to return, other than his parents, of whom we learn nothing other than that they live in Chicago.
Nor do we hear about how Watney looks, smells, or feels after spending nearly two years on Mars, alone. Weir also fails to show us the panoramas of Mars, which NASA’s Curiosity rover has now beamed back in high-definition: its buttes, mesas and impact craters, strange and strikingly beautiful. And so, while The Martian is a fun read, it’s hard to care about its central conceit: whether the protagonist will make it home.