by Andy Weir
"'They'll be happy to hear that their son's alive,' Annie said. 'Yes, he's alive,' Teddy said. 'But if my math is right, he's doomed to starve to death before we can possible help him. I'm not looking forward to the conversation.'" (p 58)
It has been almost three hundred years since Daniel Defoe's classic Robinson Crusoe was first published. And it has been almost sixty years since I first read and fell in love with that novel. Robinson Crusoe marked the beginning of realistic fiction as a literary genre. Its success led to many imitators, and castaway novels became quite popular in Europe in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Most of these have fallen into obscurity, but some became established, including The Swiss Family Robinson.
Andy Weir's entertaining novel, The Martian, belongs, I believe, to this tradition. It is a story set in the not too distant future about an era of manned exploration of Mars by Americans. As the book opens one of the expeditions has just left Mars due to a severe dust storm, but they leave one astronaut behind presuming he is dead. It happens that he survives the accident and Mark Watney, botanist and mechanical engineer, is left stranded on Mars.
The remainder of the novel consists of Watney's journal where he shares his experiences trying to survive. Watney must rely on his scientific and technical skills, engaged in such tasks as growing potatoes in the crew's Martian habitat (or Hab) and burning hydrazine to make water. His log of experiences is originally intended for some future archaeologist who might discover it long after his death. Soon after he begins moving on Mars NASA discovers that Watney is alive through satellite images of the landing site that show evidence of his activities; they begin working on ways to rescue him, but withhold the news of his survival from the rest of the Ares 3 crew, on their way back to Earth aboard the Hermes spacecraft, so as not to distract them.
Watney undergoes many setbacks over the course of several months. The possibility of rescue creates suspense and makes the book more readable than the average space adventure. There are difficulties between NASA staff on Earth that also make the story more interesting. Ultimately, for this reader, there were one too many "cliff-hanger" type of episodes. However the book was entertaining science fiction and I heartily recommend it to all.
There is also an interesting story in the publication history of the book. It was originally published serially for free on the author's website and then offered as a self-published ebook at Amazon. It was only after it became a best seller there that it was picked up by a mainline publisher for a substantial fee.
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