I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he's sure he'll be the first man to die there. It started with the dust storm that holed his suit and nearly killed him, and that forced his crew to leave him behind, sure he was already dead. Now he's stranded millions of miles from the nearest human being, with no way to even signal Earth that he's alive--and even if he could get word out, his food would be gone years before a rescue mission could arrive. Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to get him first.
But Mark isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills--and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit--he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?
“If the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.”—Red Green (for whom duct tape is the handy man’s secret weapon). Apologies to those unfamiliar with the Red Green TV show.
Mark Watney is indeed a handy kind of guy, right out of the Red Green mold. Mind you, astronauts have to be problem solvers and able to tackle everything from malfunctioning water dispensers during space walks to fixing the space station toilet [see Chris Hadfield’s memoir, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth]. Mark demonstrates this ability to take on whatever the planet Mars throws at him. [In this case, he is nothing like Red Green & the Possum Lodge members, whose motto is “If all else fails, play dead.”]
Reading this book was like eating peanuts—once I got started, it was really hard to stop. I found the device of log entries to be delightful, as I always have loved books that use the form of exchanged letters or journal entries. I also found Watney to be a charming narrator, if a bit of a smart aleck. Some reviewers have found his upbeat way of looking at his situation to be tiresome, but the log entries are always made after the worst of the crisis is over and Watney has survived to write another missive. He fully realizes his situation (“I’m fucked”), but chooses realistic optimism over simply giving up.
So, I enjoyed the form, the attention to scientific detail, and the humour. The pacing was relentless—just when the situation would settle down to a dull roar, the author would throw yet another problem at Watney. I was reminded of a GoodReads friend of mine, talking about a writer in the noir detective genre, who would fix inaction in his plots by having a man with a gun walk through the door. Yet another equipment failure in The Martian replaces the man with a gun. As a reader, I was always anxious to know how he solved this problem. Although the journal entries were great, I was also glad to have the NASA view point interspersed with them, giving me another voice and viewpoint besides Watney’s.
The GoodReads summary of the book describes it as “Apollo 13 meets Cast Away.” No accident to describe it in movie terms, rather than bookish terms, I think. And I understand that 20th Century Fox has purchased the film rights—I think it has potential to be a good movie and I will definitely go see it. I have mused before about whether modern books have the potential to become “classics” and I think this may be one novel that does have a chance at that status. Despite the moaning of the publishing industry, there seems to be a tidal wave of new titles produced each year and only time will divide the wheat from the chaff, but in my opinion The Martian stands a good chance of being in the wheat category. Or perhaps in this case it’s a potato!