Staff Review: The Martian

9780804139021The Martian

Andy Weir

Crown Publishing Group

$24.00

Available February 2014

What would MacGyver do if he was stranded on Mars? Well, astronaut Mark Watney answers this question after he is stranded in a dust storm during a mission to Mars, left by his crewmates who mistakenly believe he is dead. In The Martian, by Andy Weir, Watney wakes up to find himself alone, unable to communicate with his crew or Earth, and with limited food supplies. Even if a rescue mission could be sent, he would starve to death before they ever arrived.

Being a resourceful engineer and botanist has its advantages, however, and Watney manages to find a way to generate oxygen without blowing himself up, make water, fix the solar cells for power, create soil with viable bacteria, and grow potatoes from 12 food potatoes left behind. He even manages to find the abandoned Pathfinder Rover and rigs it up so that he can communicate with NASA. Eventually (a year and a half later) he manages to drive the rover from his mission 3200 kilometers to where there is another base from which he can connect with a flyby mission. It’s one disaster after another, but the MacGyver of Mars always manages to find a solution.

I liked this novel, mostly. I wanted to like it more. I liked it more for various parts, than the sum total. At first I found Watney’s conversational style irritating, but it grew on me, and I often found myself laughing at his humor. I really did want to find out What Happens Next, so the book was hard to put down. I found myself skimming the text when descriptions of chemical reactions and numbers seemed to take over the page; I have a scientific background, but I don’t really want to read a blow-by-blow description of the breakdown of CO2 to make oxygen, and the conversion of the rocket fuel hydrazine to make hydrogen, and the subsequent combination of hydrogen and oxygen to make water.  Nor am I particularly interested in reading about why 62 square meters of soil are needed to grow 150 kilograms of potatoes in 400 days.

However, I didn’t know that Mars has no magnetic field! And I really enjoyed the sense of place that I got from the text: the utter sense of being alone, the alien landscape, the silence. I like hard science fiction, but my tastes tend to run to Kim Stanley Robinson or Stephen Baxter. I don’t think I would recommend this novel as a hardcover, but I might recommend it as a paperback. And I do think this would appeal to a reader who likes thrillers, or maybe someone who remembers watching MacGyver back in the day.

~ Lysbeth Abrams

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