Reviewed by Galen Strickland
There has been quite a bit of talk (from other readers) of the possiblity of this book being nominated for a Hugo and/or Nebula this year, but I'm not sure it is eligible. It was originally offered as a free eBook online in 2011, but it didn't see print until February 2014, when Weir was successful in negotiating a deal with Crown Publishing. Either the print edition was significantly edited from the original, or the print publication takes precedence, or I'm wrong about the eligibility requirements. The latter is likely. We'll know in a month or so. The Hugo process has just begun, but I can't nominate anything because I wasn't even a contributing member to last year's WorldCon, and the Nebulas are reserved for members of the SFWA, so I don't know when those will be announced. If I could vote, and if it is eligible, I would say it is worthy of a nomination at least.
This is fiction of course, but it comes close to being science fact because of the meticulously explained details of the process of surviving alone on Mars. Mark Watney is one of six astronauts on the Ares 3 mission, and since the previous two missions also had six crew members each, and he was the fifth of his crew to exit the lander, that makes him the seventeenth human to set foot on Mars. Yet he becomes the first in so many other categories. They are six sols (a Martian day) into their thirty-one sol mission when a severe dust storm threatens their MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle). If it tips more than twelve degrees off vertical it will likely be unable to launch. NASA control orders them to abort the mission. In the process of evacuating their habitat (the HAB), Watney is struck by flying debris and is swept away from the other crewmen. His suit is punctured and the biometrics are damaged, so the others think he has died. Commander Lewis tries to find him, but visibility is low, plus her pilot and other crew are already aboard the MAV, which is fast approaching the tipping point. She makes it to the MAV just in time for them to blast off and rendezvous with the orbiting Hermes craft for their return to Earth. She knows she made the right decision, otherwise all of their lives were at risk, but she still feels enormous guilt for leaving a man behind.
Watney resumes consciousness to discover his suit has been punctured by a very thin radio aerial, which also pierced his side. The hole was small enough for his rapidly coagulating and freezing blood to partially seal it and retain adequate pressure in his suit. He makes it back to the HAB, discovers the MAV has launched, and also that the satellite communication dish has flown off to who-knows-where. No way to communicate with NASA or the Hermes, he begins to wonder how long it will be before he runs out of air or out of food, whether he will die of suffocation or starvation first. But Mark Watney is an intelligent and resourceful man not willing to give up, just the sort of person best suited for being an astronaut in the first place. With the remaining foodstores for himself alone rather than six total, and with rationing, he figures he has enough for 300 sols. Each of the crew doubled up on scientific disciplines as well as being back-up for at least one of the other crewmen. Watney served as both mechanical engineer and as the mission botanist. His goal as the latter was to conduct experiments in conditioning Martian soil for plant growth. He has a sample of Earth soil with bacteria and other microbial life, as well as seeds for sturdy strains of grass. One other thing he does have, which he might have originally thought of as frivolous, is a container of potatoes, which the crew had intended to cook for their Thanksgiving meal shortly before their departure. He brings dirt into the HAB and mixes it with the Earth soil, and as each batch sees the proliferation of bacteria he doubles it by mixing half of it with more Martian dirt. He has enough water to drink with some to spare, and there is also condensation from his breathing and his oxygenator and CO2 scrubbers.
He cuts up the potatoes and plants them, and their rapid growth allows harvesting and replanting much quicker than he had anticipated. He figures he has stretched his food supply by at least another 100 sols. Of course, none of this will help if he can't re-establish communication with Earth. The Ares 4 mission had already been in the planning stages for several years, and one part of the Ares 3 mission was the remote deployment from orbit of the Ares 4 MAV, which is more than 3200 kilometers from Watney's position. Each of the missions also consisted of pre-supply probes that deposited equipment (such as the HAB) and food reserves years in advance. He hopes that he will be able to eventually communicate with NASA and they can re-direct an Ares 4 probe to drop him extra supplies, so that it might be possible for him to survive long enough to travel to the Ares 4 site in four years time when that crew arrives. In the meantime, one of NASA's Mars satellite specialists has detected activity around the Ares 3 HAB, and she brings it to the attention of Mission Control that Watney is still alive. She is authorized to alter the orbits of all available Mars satellites to bring them more frequent pictures of his activity and progress, and in that way they realize he has adapted one of the short-distance rovers with capabilities for a longer trip, and is on his way to retrieve the Pathfinder rover, 400 kilometers away, which has been idle since 1997. He hopes to recharge its batteries and use it to communicate with NASA.
The first five chapters are the logs that Watney records during his ordeal. He doesn't know if anyone will ever find them, but if they do he wants to detail his process as much as possible, which could possibly be of use by later missions, especially if any semi-permanent base is ever established on the red planet. I had thought it might be that way throughout the book, but Chapter 6 breaks away from that format to focus on officials at NASA, and this is when the satellite images of him come into play. When he returns to the Ares 3 site with Pathfinder he is able to contact NASA and tell them of his ideas. Not everything goes according to plan though, and during attempts to work on the second rover he accidentally shorts out Pathfinder and loses communication again. I won't go into any further detail, but suffice it to say that with every positive step Watney takes he is faced with yet another setback. He has figured out he can let NASA know what is happening by forming Morse code messages with rocks which are photographed by satellites, but they can't respond with suggestions for what to do next. I had originally thought I wouldn't like this, since a lot of reader reviews talked about the repetitive nature of a lot of things Watley says and does. While that is partially true, especially as he talks about his potato crop, his predicament and his ingenuity in tackling the problems is interesting enough to overcome that. Considering this is Weir's first (and so far, only) novel, I feel he did a remarkable job in keeping the story moving with incredible details of all the scientific applications. Most authors dealing in Hard-SF usually acknowledge consultants on the science, but Weir does not (at least in the Kindle edition). I'm no scientist, so I don't know if things are accurate depictions of how a future Mars mission might be organized, but it was very convincing to me, and if in fact Weir did all the research himself, I'd say he did a great job.
If you're a fan of Hard-SF, if you're a fan of the space program, you should like this. As well as being an intelligent and clever man, Watney also has a positive psychological attitude, and the narrative is full of his humorous outlook on life. This has been optioned for a movie, which is already filming. I think they made the wrong choice for the lead actor, but I'll still give it a chance. It could turn out to be what Interstellar promised but didn't fulfill, a totally realistic science-fiction film. We shall see later this year.
[Update]: Saw the movie yesterday, and I was impressed. In at least one way it was better than the book. Check out my review.
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