The Martian – Andy Weir’s breathless (literally) Mars survival drama

I’ve just finished reading Andy Weir’s Mars survival drama The Martian. The reviews on Amazon and Goodreads weren’t kidding when they called this a page-turner. For those who enjoyed Ron Howard’s feel-good movie Apollo 13 back in 1995, this is the book for you. In fact, Twentieth Century Fox have optioned the film rights and are working on a screenplay now.

The Martian is the story of Mark Watney, who is part of a 6-member mission to the Mars surface. Six days into their 30-day Mars mission, their site is hit by a super-storm with 175 kph winds which forces a mission abort. As the team are evacuating their habitat module and walking towards their spacecraft in near zero-visibility conditions, Watney is hit by a piece of flying debris which punctures his suit and whisks him away into the storm. With barely seconds to spare before their spacecraft is titled over by the ferocious winds, the crew have no choice but to presume that Watney is dead and they lift off and begin their return journey to Earth. All this happens in the first few pages. Then the adventure begins. Watney has survived and regains consciousness to find himself alone on Mars with communications antenna destroyed and the still-standing habitat module as his only shelter. The reader is then taken through the next ‘x’ days (yeah, read the book to find out how long he survives), as Watney uses all of his scientific knowledge and presence of mind to survive. 

Most of the book is written in the first person, in the form of Mark Watney’s personal logs, which he records faithfully in the event that a future Mars mission will return to this site to recover his body. I was initially put off by Watney’s irreverent, conversational style of log writing. I thought to myself, “This guy is a scientist and fighting for his life; how can he be so casual?”. Then as the book went along, I realized, this was the author’s way of illustrating Watney’s personality; and this was Watney’s way of dealing with his situation. If he had taken it too seriously, he would have just been overwhelmed by his situation, given up, injected himself with a fatal dose of medication and died. 

Anyone with a scientific bent of mind, or who has studied engineering will love this book. Watney’s first person accounts are filled with calculations about various consumables (air, food, energy, fuel) that he has to optimize or produce in order to extend his life. If you dislike numbers, you can skip trying to keep up with the mental math and just read through the sentence. In the initial stages of the book, I actually was working out the numbers as I was reading them. Later on in the book, I was so anxious to know what happens next that I was skimming past the numbers to just see if Watney had enough oxygen/ hydrogen/ food packets/ spare utilities for whatever he was scheming up next.

I won’t spoil any other bits of the book for potential readers, but suffice to say that like Apollo 13 there is indeed a happy ending. But not before we go through a few heart-stopping situations. 

Andy Weir is a computer scientist and actually researched all the scientific facts for the book and worked out all the math. He initially self-published the book on his website for free because he couldn’t find any takers among publishers. He then made it available for Amazon Kindle and once it started rising up the charts, he finally sold the rights for hard copy publishing and for a movie. Just like Hugh Howey’s Wool, this is another example of a self-publishing rags-to-riches success story.

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