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October 10, 2016

The Martian

screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-9-54-02-amThe Martian

By: Andy Weir

When I was a kid, I remember crowding with my siblings in front of a flickering television image – way past our bedtimes – to witness a miracle. Americans had successfully landed on the Moon and two astronauts were actually traversing its surface! Neil Armstrong took “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” on July 20, 1969 and NASA’s space program went into orbit. Our fascination with space exploration has ebbed and flowed since that time, but the allure remains. That’s a factor in why I was initially intrigued by Andy Weir’s inaugural book, The Martian. Enticing advance publicity for a Matt Damon movie of the same name, was hitting the air waves as well – another draw. So, before heading to the theater, I decided to delve into the book.

Author Andy Weir, a self-proclaimed science nerd, was a computer programmer who dreamed of becoming a writer. His initial attempt at authorship went bust – no agent, no publisher, end of dream – right? So he returned to his day job but continued to write. Weir posted his creative output on his personal Website in the form of a continuing story. A small audience got hooked on his saga and told their friends about it, resulting in 3,000 subscribers! As his fan base grew, Weir moved to self-publishing, selling a surprisingly large volume of Kindle e-books on Amazon. Eventually, Weir’s impressive ground-roots following opened the door to the literary agent and publisher that had previously eluded him.

The premise of this science fiction tale is that a group of NASA astronauts have landed on Mars for a month-long stay about 20 years in the future. Our protagonist, Mark Watney, is an irreverent, wise-cracking botanist and low-man on the six-person crew. Just six days into their stay, an unexpectedly brutal wind-storm causes the mission to be scratched and the team is ordered to get out before their Mars ascent vehicle (MAV) is damaged beyond use. While traversing the surface of Mars in their space suits to board the escape vehicle, Watney is hit by flying debris and rolls down a steep hill and out of sight. Co-astronaut Beth Johanssen sees him tumble away but the crew are unable to locate him in the vicious sand storm. Shaken and convinced of his demise by Watney’s flat-line suit monitor readings, the five despondently leave their friend’s “remains” behind before they all perish.

Miraculously, through a series of unlikely occurrences, Watney is injured but alive. When he regains consciousness, the storm has abated and he finds himself isolated and alone on Mars. Stumbling back to the artificial living habitat (HAB), he unsuits, stitches up his own punctured side and takes stock. Using his exceptional brain power, ingenuity, determination and the equipment and supplies left behind by his crewmates, Watney manages to endure and overcome a series of threats to his survival. He manages to grow food, produce water, maintain shelter, explore the surface and even performs some of his original work assignments. He has no communication with the outside world for months until he manages to jerry-rig a video connection with NASA. Once the World learns of his Lazarus-like return from the dead, mankind and an international coalition of scientists are inspired to plan and execute an unorthodox rescue mission for this plucky cast-away.

Andy Weir has done his homework to ensure that the science involved in this story plausible – and there’s a lot of science presented; so much that the story is occasionally bogged down by it. But, Weir’s wily protagonist has a sharp sense of irreverent humor and a never-say-die attitude that engages the reader and keeps the story moving and entertaining. If you’ve ever watched the old MacGyver television series, you’ll recognize the creative, outside-the-box problem solving with which Mark Watney excels; duct tape is frequently involved!

Weir keeps his readers in varying levels of tense suspense throughout his novel on three fronts: Mars, the Hermes space ship containing the additional five crew, and NASA on planet Earth. You’re never sure when or where the next crisis will surface. Watney’s diary entries serve as a window into his soul – you gain access to his inner thoughts, emotions and expectations. As the narrative unfolds, you also learn of the devotion, loyalty and heroic efforts of his crew-mates – all of whom are willing to endanger their own lives to attempt his rescue. Finally, you meet and get inside the heads and hearts of several of the hundreds of NASA administrators and scientists who are scrambling to accomplish the impossible, against all odds.

Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 partner on the moon, described the lunar scene as, “magnificent desolation”. This phrase is equally apt at describing the physical environment and the emotional landscape against which Mark Watney struggles in The Martian. I found it an extremely compelling story, which highlights the universal human drive to explore and survive. I found it encouraging to witness the power of one man’s plight to inspire all of humanity! Mark Watney, says it best, “The cost for my survival must have been hundreds of millions of dollars. All to save one dorky botanist. Why bother?… Part of it might be what I represent: progress, science, and the interplanetary future we’ve dreamed of for centuries. But really, they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true.”

Review By:  Pam Lamberger