In this post I will introduce you to The Martian by Andy Weir. There will be no spoilers, but a few teasers.
An important aspect to keep in mind while reading the book (or listening to the audio-book) is its origin story. For that I will briefly discuss the setting, the Author himself and how the book came to be and finally my thoughts on the book itself.
This is my first time publishing such a post so I appreciate any thoughts you might have on how I can improve myself.
Ares 3 is the third Mission bringing humans on Mars' surface in the year 2035. On the 6th sol (a day on Mars is slightly longer than on earth so they decided to name it sol) a heavy storm causes an emergency abort and during the evacuation Mark Watney, the botanist and engineer of the team, seems to be killed by an antenna the storm shook lose. Given up hope on rescuing Mark the other five team members manage to escape into orbit and board the Hermes to head home on a 10 month long journey to Earth.
But Mark survives the impact and the storm (otherwise there would not be a story about him), yet neither his teammates nor the people on earth know it because his bio monitor was struck and with the antenna and the Hermes gone he has no radio and therefore no way of informing them that he is still alive.
Andy Weir worked as a computer programmer while he was writing fiction in his free time. But he could not find anyone to publish his works. Since he was also fascinated by space exploration he started wondering what could go wrong when we start sending humans to mars. Since he already gave up hope of ever publishing, he used his website to publish his work on The Martian while still writing it chapter by chapter.
During this self-publishing process the story's ending was not yet determined. His readers were able to contribute and pointing out plot holes and scientific mistakes Andy Weir might have made.
So even for the author there was no way of determining how long (if at all) Mark Watney would survive his ordeal. The usual thought (ah well, still 100 pages left, he will survive this somehow) any reader might have had at many points during the story could not occur.
We read the log entries made by Mark after the evacuation. All the information the reader gets is whatever Mark seems worthy of putting in his log. The first entry we get to read is from sol 6, after he managed to get back into the habitat and stabilize his condition. From here on he describes events from his point of view after the fact (after all, it is a log) in several log entries captioned with the sol date of the mission. Since it is not a normal mission anymore he does not hold back on putting in his emotions into the log. Sometimes he expresses them directly, sometimes we can deduce them from his style and assessment of the situation.
To survive on mars and develop a plan to get home somehow requires a lot of dangerous tasks and when Mark realizes this he starts making additions to his log to discuss his future plans and to inform the reader (he imagines at some point in the future some human must finally read this) what he was doing when/if he died with this potentially last log entry.
Since there is still the "ah well, 100 pages left, he will survive this somehow" thought, the author mixes it up with a change of perspective. About one third into the story, while Mark is struggling to survive alone on Mars, we learn what is happening on board the Hermes during their voyage home and on Earth in NASA headquarters and other locations around the globe. Now there are frequent focus changes between Mars, Earth and Hermes. This opens new possibilities to finish the story and raises the question whether Mark does survive or not.
Andy Weir throws us directly into the action after the storm on sol 6. We read the first log entry of a sole survivor on Mars after being left there presumed dead. No one is looking for him and he knows it. There is no way to communicate with Earth. Rations are supposed to last for a month so basically a no hope scenario from the beginning. And yet Mark Watney manages to find hope and slowly develops a plan.
The author manages to capture the different mood stages of his protagonist and lay out the thought process of his ideas. The complex science needed to get the plot rolling is sound in itself and delivered in a way so the reader does not need a college education to understand what is happening. All the technology used is either already in existence or currently in an advanced a stage of development and therefore plausible to be available in 2035.
When switching the location of the story to Earth and Hermes the perspective changes as well, we are no longer reading a first person log entry, we listen to a third person narrator. It was a wake up call to raise the question for the first time: Does Mark survive? The story could easily be continued from this point of view with Mark Watney dying alone on Mars and continues this way until the end.
From here on there are so many questions:
- Does Mark survive?
- Is there a way to establish communication?
- What about food and water?
- Do people on Earth find out he is alive?
- If they do, how do they find out?
- Can they help him?
- Can they rescue him?
- What does this do to the mental state of all the people?
And after every log entry:
- What goes wrong next and how does Mark fix it, if he does not get killed this time?
The few occasions that caused me to put this book aside were not voluntary. The twists were mostly unforeseeable yet plausible, an art in fiction writing I miss a lot by modern authors.
What I feared the most, if not for Mark Watney's life, was a Deus Ex Machina moment ruining the ending. If you share this fear, I can put your mind at rest: There is none.
The Publication and The Movie
How this book got published and became a bestseller is an amazing story by itself, best told by Andy Weir himself.
In short, the free version went viral (through several steps the author tells so well about in the video linked above) and the movie deal got finalized pretty fast.
If you have not watched the movie yet, read the book first.
If you have watched the movie but not read the book yet, read the book.
And here is why:
I was lucky and read the book before the movie came out. A friend of mine did not read the book. Even though we were both watching a good movie, the discussion afterwards showed me: I was having a better time. Yes, I knew the plot and the ending. But a lot of scenes made more sense to me because I had the elaborate background and more importantly the reasoning of what was happening.
After the success of The Martian Andy Weir was able to give up his day job and become a full time author. He published a few short stories and two novels among other smaller things.
With his two other novels Artemis and Project Hail Mary he managed to become one of my favorite modern authors and I hope to present these other two books to you in the near future.