Ossus Library Index Science Fiction Index


A novel by Andy Weir (2014, Crown Publishing)

When an astronaut is left for dead on Mars, he must find a way to survive until the next mission arrives- in four years, using supplies designed to last months.




Read July 12th to 17th, 2016, in paperback  
    Highly technical, full of so many life-and-death situations where the character has to think things through and come up with a real solution –this was a great narrative. This first-person point of view made it emotional even when the character was reasoning things out logically. And it was full of unexpected humor, which really helped keep the book flowing.

Spoiler review:

I saw the movie months ago, and I don’t remember seeing everything that is mentioned in this book, but that’s normal. I do remember the potatoes, but nothing like what is described here. Obviously in a movie, they need to move fast, and describing all the details of what Watney goes through to get them started would slow it down. But the book really gets to go through a huge buildup, with a lot more calculations and hurdles. And I loved it.

The book is all-around fun, but I think what really added to it was the main character’s sarcasm. One great example of this was when he was asked to drill holes in the rover roof. He takes it in stride, as if the people at NASA are crazy, but he’s just following their orders, as if this is an ordinary day.

The whole book was treated as if it was an ordinary mission, only Watney was sent to Mars by himself and without enough provisions. Yes, he was left behind because the rest of his crew thought he was dead. But it doesn’t show, except in a few short instances. If you were going to leave somebody behind on Mars, this would be the guy to do it. I like to think that “thinking man” can overcome “violent man” with enough control and training, and here, it looks like the combination of NASA training and Watney’s personality made a perfect match. He was driven to survive, though I think it’s unlikely that he didn’t ever really get angry. Every time he got depressed, he started to think about the solution. As Jim Lovell from Apollo 13 said, he has to think the solution, not the problem.

The story is about an astronaut who was left behind after he was presumed killed in a standstorm that forced the crew to abandon their mission on Mars, and head back to Earth. Of course, he isn’t killed, and wakes up to find himself all alone on the planet. As he points out, this is the first time anybody has been alone on a planet before. He does remarkably well, first sewing himself up, then getting life going as he intends to survive until the next Mars mission. To that end, he rigs up the solar panel, makes sure he has enough water and oxygen, and finally sets up a potato farm. This last bit was really great, as it was explained in detail, even though the mistakes he made.

He drives the rover around getting things done, and eventually makes his way out to find Pathfinder, the first of the new wave of Mars landers. The journey is very interesting, as he determines how much power he needs, as well as water and oxygen. He has to stop often to drag the solar panels off the rover so that he can recharge the rover.

Back on Earth, thanks to Mindy Park, people have realized that Watney is still alive. It’s a disaster story for NASA, but also a story of hope and survival. For NASA, there are two goals: keep Watney alive, and manage the press. Annie, the PR representative is unusually foul-mouthed for somebody who interacts with the press so often. Venkat and the other mission specialists and engineers mount a resupply mission that explodes because they didn’t follow the standard safety procedures, as they are short on time.

With Pathfinder in hand, Watney can now talk with Earth, with the standard delay between the two planets. In addition to getting companionship and help, he gets unwanted advice. His thought is that he’s been doing great growing potatoes and fixing the water reclaimer all this time. Now that NASA has gotten involved, they’re sending him procedures that take pages! He shows them up by repairing the water reclaimer in a few minutes by himself. And he’s pretty sarcastic about it, too. Of course, the procedures are there for a reason, and if he had done something wrong, it could have been fatal with the shortcuts he took. But it turned out alright, so he was able to make sarcastic jokes about it.

His leisure time gets a lot of sarcasm, too, as he only has recorded music, TV shows and ebooks that his crew brought with them and left behind. Disco music, Three’s Company and The Fonz, Six Million Dollar Man each get their turn in the spotlight. I liked the reference to Pathfinder not having tried to kill him… yet, after watching a movie about killer machines. It also makes for one of the best lines in the book when the people on Earth are wondering what he could possibly be thinking after realizing he was left alone on Mars –he makes one of the Fonz’s trademark remarks!

I could have done without the obviousness of the foreshadowing in two of the disastrous moments. The description of the how the hab material weakened near the airlock just before the big blowout was interesting, but removed the element of surprise. Similarly when Watney entered the crater and flipped the rovers.

The trip from the Hab to Schiapparelli crater differed the most from the movie. Here’s a lot more goes on, from his navigating by Phobos, to the drill short-circuiting Pathfinder (resulting in loss of communications), the flipping of the rovers, and the sandstorm (what is Mars without a sandstorm?). All of these sequences were riveting.

I liked the sequences with Rich Purnell back on Earth, as he comes up with a daring plan to send Ares back to Mars, which is the quickest way to get Watney back. When he’s working on the side project, his boss comes in to ask him for an update on another trajectory, and tells him to do his side project on his own time. So he asks for a vacation, and takes it immediately so he can work on his side project! Eventually his plan gets leaked to the crew, who mutiny and take the decision away from the ground crew. They make the required maneuver, rendezvous with the Chinese supply ship, and go back to Mars. I’m not sure we needed to hear the part about Johanssen being chosen to eat the other crewmembers if the resupply mission failed, so she could survive.

I had a nagging question that was not adequately answered in either the book or the movie. Why couldn’t Watney regrow the potato farm the way he did in the first place? He had the raw potatoes, he had the manure (or could make more at any time, as long as he was still eating), and he had the water. What was missing in that mix to start over?

In the end, Watney makes it to the Ares 4 landing site in his makeshift rover, and strips their abort craft so that he can reach the speed needed for the Ares to pick him up. Things don’t quite go according to plan, but it’s a lot more neatly done than in the movie. They do manage to get Watney in his capsule, which means he doesn’t need to end up doing the Iron Man thing with his glove.

There were only a few places in the entire book where I needed to really suspend my disbelief. Otherwise, the technical part was probably the best, and the story followed from that. I quite enjoyed the novel, and look forward to watching the movie again.

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