I don't read a lot of science fiction. A bit here and there, sure -- my reading dabbles into just about every genre eventually-- but probably not more than one book every couple of years or so. And since I'd already read Lexicon in 2014, I figured that would be it for a while. Then I heard that my colleagues at the indie bookstore called Fiction Addiction were using this book as a "trust fall" with their customers. Those clever folks were selling this book to customers who didn't know what they were purchasing, only that the store was endorsing it with a money-back guarantee if they ended up not liking it. Pretty cool eh?
And then the people I know on the inter webs were putting this book in my face. First Sarah Says Read wrote a long and passionate rave for The Martian. Then The Terrible Desire and What Red Read took up the mantle and that was apparently the tipping point for me. So I asked my sales rep to send me a paperback copy to read on vacation last month, and he very obligingly did so.
I find that the comparisons that the publisher's marketing department come up with for new books are almost always bogus: It's Gone Girl meets The Goldfinch or it's The Da Vinci Code meets Goodnight Moon, or whatever. With this book, though, they got it right. It really is Apollo 13 meets Castaway, though it's curious to me that the publisher chose movies for their comparisons and not books. That those two movies both star Tom Hanks, doubly so.
Mark Watney is alone on Mars. You see, a dust storm engulfed him and the rest of the crew, and he was impaled with some equipment that breached his space suit and blown away. The crew searched in vain for him but had to make the difficult call of leaving his body behind in order to save the mission.
But then Mark wakes up, and BECAUSE SCIENCE is still alive.
Kinda like that. Except with vacuum and torque and pressure and whatnot.
As the internet meme says, I fucking love science, and this book is chock full of it. Using only his own ingenuity and the equipment left behind by the crew, Mark must figure out how to survive on Mars for a long time. He lacks direct radio contact with earth, and everybody else thinks he's dead, so he realizes that he must contrive food and water for himself for about four years, which is when the next Mars mission is scheduled to land.
Mark's dual background of engineering and botany serve him well, but it's really his sense of humor that becomes his own (and the reader's) saving grace. Mark narrates most of the book through journal entries, and there are dozens of times when he nearly dies. You see, all of his knowledge, while extensive, is mostly theoretical when it comes to the ways things will work differently on Mars, and this makes things complicated and frustrating and dangerous. Thank goodness he's got a limited supply of 1970s sitcoms to watch and a lifetime supply of snark to employ in his commentary.
In the meantime, some lowly person back in the US is monitoring satellite images of Mars when she notices that some things on the surface of the planet seem to be moving around. She hazards a guess that Mark actually still might be alive, and instead of cutting the tension, that knowledge actually seems to ratchet it up a notch. Now Mark and the rest of the world are working from two different ends, trying to meet in the middle to achieve a single goal, and still TONS of things go wrong.
As they should. Being a pioneer on Mars and using your knowledge experimentally should not be easy. But if there's one thing I grew a little weary of in this book, it was not the long scientific explanations of stuff, but the dozens of crisis moments and near-death experiences. I would have preferred fewer of those and more character development. Or even any character development would have been nice. This book is so focused on exposition instead of narrative that it necessarily breaks the old writing adage of "show, don't tell." However, there's a nice mix of men & women, and if judging by surnames is reliable enough to go by, then there's actually a racial mix among the astronauts, too. For a genre that is so dominated by white males, both in the writing and in the content, this is very refreshing.
This is a book that will find, as it did with me, a wide readership even among those who don't self-identify as readers of science fiction. It's very plot driven and cinematic, and it's no wonder that the film is currently slated for a 2015 release. The cast sounds great, but if the director sacrifices the two best things in the book -- the real science that drive almost every plot point and Mark Watney's sense of humor -- for a big-budget, special effects extravaganza, it will be a seriously wasted opportunity.
But that will be then. For now, just take a gander at this fascinating book. I'm sure glad that I did. And if your science background is more like this:
...Don't worry! Just skim some of the science-explanationy-things and keep your eyes on the prize of the storyline.