Mark Watney is one of the first human beings to walk on Mars. The chances are he’s going to set a whole load of other records because, six days after landing, an accident results in his team taking off for Earth in a panic, little realising that the crew member they’re leaving behind and grieving for is not a corpse at all. Far from it. And so Mark’s journal begins.
In a series of log entries, Mark records the Sol days and nights that follow his marooning, a Space Age Robinson Crusoe. But while he could be forgiven for falling into a pool of self pity, watching his oxygen, food and water drip away in a countdown to certain death, Mark Watney does no such thing. From the very first log, Mark Watney grabs his situation with both hands, demonstrating why astronauts are no ordinary mortals, and sets about finding a solution to each of his problems, bit by bit, day by day, setback after setback, success after success. Remember the scene in Apollo 13 where a life saving bit of kit has to be created from a sock and the cover of the flight plan manual? In The Martian, you have the panic and the glory and the worry of this on almost every single page.
Luckily for him, Mark Watney is a biologist and a flight engineer. This means that he is not only a problem solver, he also has an almost inhuman tolerance for potatoes and this is just one of the many talents that sees Mark though these days. But what gives the entire novel and story an extra bit of tension, adding to the supreme tension of the entire situation and the precariousness of every single day, is that we have no idea if Mark will ever survive this ordeal. There are no certainties in this novel. It doesn’t matter how resourceful Mark is, however much of a genius he is, however resolute and optimistic he remains, there is a big factor at work here that Mark has no control over. And that is Mars. This powerfully hostile environment never seems to run out of banana skins to chuck under the feet of our hero.
The Martian presents two stories. When the tension reaches a stage where you think that you – and Mark – might simply collapse from the strain of it all, the action switches to Earth as people on that planet come to the rather horrific conclusion that they have left a man behind. From that moment on, the novel combines an account of the mission to rescue Mark with Mark’s own account of his ingenious tactics to live long enough to be worth rescuing.
The Martian is an absolutely fantastic read and without doubt one of the most enjoyable books I have read in a long time. This is partly because of Mark Watney himself. What an incredible character! A lot of what he works out, talking to himself in his journal, flies right over my head to be honest but that doesn’t matter a jot. Through the intricate details and mind boggling science, it is extremely easy to think that this whole affair is real or at the very least potentially real. Surely all astronauts should read this? Just in case! It is never dull. On the contrary. This is science made exuberant and it couldn’t possibly be any more thrilling because this is life surviving at the very extremes and all the time we just don’t know how it will turn out. Any page could end in disaster. It’s almost as if the author himself has no control over Mark’s fate. It’s all down to Mars.
Another reason for the success of this fabulous novel is its mix of moods and tones. Mark is such a funny man. That’s how he stays sane. But we can see through the laughs. Everything has to be worked out precisely. Death is never more than one mistake away. Mark can laugh about it but despair can’t be too far off. Alongside Mark’s state of mind we have the mood of Mission Control on Earth and that of the commander and crew who took off and left him behind. The pages shake with emotion, not least among them is guilt. And all the time Mark’s world is vividly created – the vehicles, the habitat, the planet of Mars itself.
I read The Martian on a flight with my Other Half reading it over my shoulder. On landing there was a scuffle to see who would stay up to finish it first. This is a novel to mesmerise and entertain readers whether you’re a fan of science fiction or not. It is a tale of extraordinary courage and resolve and such humanity in the face of overwhelming odds. Anything can happen and it often does. It is a wonderful book, written with such deftness and skill, full of tension and drama but also rich in humour. I loved the central character, our marooned Martian, and hung onto his every word.