Written by: Andy Weir
Rating: 5/5 stars
Summary: Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.
After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate the planet while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded on Mars’ surface, completely alone, with no way to signal Earth that he’s alive — and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone years before a rescue 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 kill him first. But Mark’s not ready to quit. Armed with nothing but his ingenuity and his engineering skills — and a gallows sense of humor that proves to be his greatest source of strength – he embarks on a dogged quest to stay alive, using his botany expertise to grow food and even hatching a mad plan to contact NASA back on Earth.
Review: It took me a while to get into this book, to be honest with you. I have little to no knowledge of physics and engineering, and a large portion of the book’s start is snarky and brilliant astronaut Mark Watney narrating his own version of Martian Macgyver as he attempts to survive on Mars. Additionally, I was reading it in tiny spurts this summer while I worked: 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there, and altogether spending 20 minutes trying to read over and imagine some complex engineering feat he had just described. But, I respect Weir for the obvious amount of research and detailed though he put into this book. I fact-checked a lot of it with one of my friends who is a Biochemical Engineer, and he said it was all sound logic (despite it being done on Mars, but you know how that goes). Although the scene itself is a little vague (again, it’s Mars, a desert planet – what do you expect?), you can see every piece of machinery and every action Watney takes through Weir’s words. So, I pushed through.
Watney quickly became one of my favorite literary characters I’ve had the chance to read. He is insanely intelligent, resilient to the point of stubborn, optimistic, and, most importantly, hilarious. It takes a lot for me to laugh out loud while reading books, but I got in trouble from my boss doing just that when I was supposed to be working (worth it, though). Although half the book is told from his POV in the form of mission logs, the other half is told from third person on Earth as NASA scrambles to plan a rescue mission. Perhaps the best example of the type of person Watney is, is the following:
ON EARTH, WITH NASA OFFICIALS: “He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?” He turned back to Venkat. “I wonder what he’s thinking right now.”
LOG ENTRY: SOL 61 (AKA Mark Watney) How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.”
Speaking of psychology… A lot of people feel gypped that Weir never writes about Watney’s depression or loneliness as much as he should, but the thing is, that’s not the point of the book. The point of the book is to show how strong the human spirit can be, not how fallible. Is it realistic? Maybe not. Would the book may have been a little bit better if he had shown a little more of Watney’s innate humanity? Maybe. But dang, Watney’s optimism is inspiring and his wit and quick humor in even the most tense or stressful situations makes the book so much more better.
Watney also makes the plot go by a little quicker, because it is pretty slow for most of the book. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t actually interact with any little green Martians, so the plot as a whole is actually more dependent on what’s happening down on Earth. Although some characters, like NASA employees Venkat Kapoor, Rich Purnell, Mitch Henderson, and Mindy Park (vastly under appreciated in the movie, btw), were well characterized and incredibly likable/entertaining, others – namely, Mark’s prior crew who is still in a space shuttle on their way home, are incredibly overlooked by Weir’s narrations. Perhaps it’s because of the way the story is told, but I would have loved to hear more about what was going on in the Hermes cabin after they lost Mark and deliberated what to do afterwards. I even wish we had been able to look into the NASA employees’ lives a little bit more, to see how they were doing with the responsibility that was bestowed upon them in finding a way for Watney to get home.
To be honest, I was still at about a 4/5 toward the end of the book. The ending was still relatively predictable – although Watney’s humor in the situation, once again, surprised and enlightened me – but then it got to the last few pages, after the resolution of the main plot. In this excerpt, Watney is talking about how much people sacrifice for each other, and he says this quote.
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.
If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do.”
Disclaimer: I don’t cry during books very often. It takes a lot for me to get so emotionally connected to a character as I did with Mark Watney. Any time something failed, you groaned internally with him and nervously counted the pages left to see if this is where it ended. Any time something worked, your heart raced with hope. Any time he made some sort of side comment about NASA and how, basically, they were too conventional to be deemed as intelligent, you cheered for him as a rebel of sorts. But when Mark Watney said this statement, my heart and eyes swelled. It’s not a particularly eloquent statement, but it gets its point across loud and clear: a reminder that despite the wars and the racism and the genocide and the power mongers, humanity, as a whole, isn’t as shitty as it seems.
And that’s a message I can get behind.