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.
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
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
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
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
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.