By Andy Weir
Someone famous once said, “We don’t need another hero, we don’t need to know the way home.” Yet, if literary history is any indication, we simply can’t get enough of heroes, and we all really do want to find the way home.
Our fascination with survival-and-homecoming stories seems as old as time itself. The grand-daddy of the genre might be The Odyssey. Daniel Defoe’s 18th century Robinson Crusoe, itself inspired by earlier works, easily fits into this category, too.
Andy Weir’s The Martian, set on the Red planet in the near future, explores this theme for a modern readership–those who live in the space and digital age. In addition, Weir adds to the traditional survival-homecoming story by employing the trope of the community, country, or world coming together in common cause to bring home one of its own. Our faith in humanity is reaffirmed when people come together to help George Bailey, Little Timmy, Chilean miners, or an astronaut stranded in a hostile environment on a planet 225 million kilometers away.
In the novel, Mark Watney is part of the five-member NASA Ares 3 mission to Mars. Lost in a sudden storm, Watney is presumed dead and left behind by the mission commander, who makes the heartbreaking choice to save the crew instead of staying to retrieve Watney’s body.
From the moment Watney regains consciousness alone on the planet, every second is spent ensuring there is at least another to be lived. First, he has to repair the hole in his space suit, and then the hole in his body. Watney’s priorities are simple and terrifyingly stark.
Fortunately, the crew’s mission habitation is still intact, but all communications are down. Not only is he stranded, he has no way of signaling his survival–which means no hope for rescue. In the Hab, Watney’s priority is to ensure his near-term survival. He must have air, heat, water, and food, or find ways to produce what he lacks. The law of conservation of mass is seldom so rudely enforced. Panic hovers at the margins of Watney’s dreadful isolation, kept at bay only by the monumental amount of daily mental and physical work required to stay alive.
Back on Earth, news of Watney’s death is received with great sadness. But when a NASA analyst discovers signs of activity around the Hab, NASA is galvanized into action to find a way to monitor Watney, get in touch with him, and coordinate a rescue.
Thus begins the novel’s second movement: the effort to effect homecoming.
While NASA frantically develops rescue plans, Watney outfits an expedition to find the derelict NASA Pathfinder lander and Sojourner rover, whose onboard equipment could help him resurrect communications with Earth. The expedition is fraught with risks and challenges, but success could end his isolation, connect him to NASA’s brain and computing power, and, ultimately, result in a rescue. As ever, Mars lies between Watney and life. If the moon is a harsh mistress, then Mars is an aloof, indifferent god.
The Martian is a science techno-thriller in the vein of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. In a couple of unusual twists, the battle is against the environment, and the Chinese turn out to be good guys. For the techno-thriller traditionalist, there are explosions, including one caused by a fuel-air bomb using sugar. His thoroughly modern novel uses blogs and emails as well as traditional third-person and omniscient narratives to propel the story.
Multiple award-winner Kim Stanley Robinson set a gold standard with his Martian trilogy. Where Robinson created a visionary epic spanning generations, Weir instead focuses on the immediate drama of one man’s survival in the unique environment of Mars. His vast knowledge of the technology, chemistry, physics, astrophysics, botany, geography, geology, and planetary science, among a whole slew of sciences necessary for space flight and survival on Mars, powers this drama. Watney’s trials are intricately conceived, thoroughly believable, and novelly solved.
Written for the space-and-digital-era audience, The Martian unfolds at a snappy pace building tension with every page. It may not aspire to the lofty vision that has characterized the best of science fiction, but it is nevertheless a terrific novel filled with Weir’s obvious passion. May it inspire generations of spacefarers.