Wow. What a great read!
"The Martian," by Andy Weir, is a terrific story about an astronaut who is stranded on Mars when the rest of his crew thinks he's dead and has to take off without him in an emergency.
It's the first thriller I've read in a long time that really captured my interest. I don't read books in one sitting, but "The Martian" is a book I was always happy to return to, and was sorry to see end.
Mark Watney, who narrates most of the book, is the lowest-ranking member of the Ares 3 crew, the third manned mission to Mars. (By the way, I don't remember Weir mentioning this, but Mars is the Roman god of war; Ares is the Greek god of war. Hahaha!)
The crew gets word from NASA that a big sandstorm is coming their way that would likely ruin their escape vehicle, the MAV, so they must take off immediately. But before everybody gets on board, the Martian wind rips off some equipment, spearing Watney, in an EVA suit, with an antenna.
His vital signs disappear; he disappears in the sandstorm; the MAV is in danger of being destroyed, so it leaves, to hook up with the big space ship, Hermes, and return to Earth.
Eventually, Watney is awakened in his suit by the oxygen alarm.
"The storm had abated; I was facedown, almost totally buried in sand. As I groggily came to, I wondered why I wasn't more dead."
Turns out that the antenna that had punctured his suit also punctured his pelvis. The blood helped seal the hole in his suit. There was minor leakage, which the suit automatically responded to by flooding itself with nitrogen from a tank. But then, the carbon-dioxide absorbers were depleted, so the suit started to vent its atmosphere to reduce the amount of CO2, but then the nitrogen ran out, so the suit was re-filling with oxygen only.
"I now risked dying from oxygen toxicity ... An ironic death for someone with a leaky space suit: too much oxygen."
After yanking out the antenna and sealing his suit, Watney manages to get to the Hab, the structure the astronauts lived in on Mars. He stitches up his wound and examines the Hab and his equipment.
"So that's the situation. I'm stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I'm dead. I'm in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days.
"If the oxygenator breaks down, I'll suffocated. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I'll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I'll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I'll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
"So yeah. I'm fucked."
Well, that's the first seven pages, anyway. And over the next 362 pages, the book just gets better, a completely fun and fascinating read.
Watney's two mission specialties are botany and mechanical engineering. Engineers, of course, look at problems, then try to find ways to solve them.
Watney looks at his resources and does the math. He figures out that if he is careful with rationing and recycling, he has enough food for about 400 days.
And he knows that Ares 4 is due to land on Mars in about four years.
"Of course, I don't have any plan for surviving four years on one year of food. But one thing at a time here. For now, I'm well fed and have a purpose: Fix the damn radio."
Well, for every need, a new challenge, and new ways that Mars, with its very thin atmosphere, sudden sand storms and other dangers, tries to kill Watney.
He can't find the communications dish that had blown off the Hab in the storm, and he knows he won't be able "to whip something up with tinfoil and gum" to replace it.
And there is the food issue. He needs to find a way to grow his own. First, he has to make his own organic soil, using sterile, dry Mars dirt, the little bit of Earth soil he'd brought for experiments, and dried astronaut shit.
"My asshole is doing as much to keep me alive as my brain."
Then, what to plant? Luckily, a holiday dinner had been planned, so a few real vegetables had been allowed on the mission: peas, beans and potatoes.
Soon, he has a farm going inside the Hab. And in two pop tents he erects outside the Hab. But it won't be enough. "So now I'll start starving to death on Sol 490 instead of Sol 400. It's progress, but any hope of survival rests on me surviving until Sol 1412, when Ares 4 will land."
Meanwhile, he still hasn't solved the communications issue, but back on Earth, a sharp-eyed satellite monitor has noticed, in photos of the Hab site, that she can't find Watney's body, with an antenna sticking out of it. And that two pop tents have been erected. And that the solar collectors, usually covered with Martian dust, are sparkling clean.
So, now NASA knows they have a stranded, probably doomed, astronaut on the surface of Mars. The ship carrying Watney's crew members is still heading toward Earth, with ten months left on that trip, and NASA decides not to tell the crew members about Watney, but work on some other means of rescuing him.
Watney is still working at things. And when he wants to rest, he listens to music left by his crewmates, or watches their videos. Such as a collection of 1970s TV shows. At one point, wrestling with an issue, he tells his mission log, "I suppose I'll think of something. Or die.
"Anyway, much more important: I simply can't abide the replacement of Chrissy with Cindy. 'Three's Company' may never be the same after this fiasco. Time will tell."
Watney gets an idea: He will take one of his two rovers and travel to the site of the 1997 Pathfinder landing, retrieve it and its Sojourner rover, and see if he can revive them to communicate with Earth.
All those smart people at NASA are watching, so are ready when Watney accomplishes that much.
But, there is still a long time to go till Ares 4, or till a rescue mission can be sent significant amounts of money are needed for launch rockets and space ships, and the trip takes a long time and in the meantime, Watney continues to face disaster after disaster.
And, so do the NASA engineers.
Watney is a likeable, funny fellow who never gives up. He reminds me of the test pilots Tom Wolfe wrote about in "The Right Stuff." The plane is spinning out of control, so the pilot tries "A." If that doesn't work, the pilot tries "B." He just keeps at it, either till he has to bail out, or crash and die.
Watney thinks through every problem and tries "A" and then he tries "B." And he has enough challenges to his life on Mars that he needs lots of alphabet.
Author Weir is a software engineer whose first job, with a national lab, happened when he was 15. He's been a software engineer ever since, and lives in Mountain View, California, which is also home to various NASA activities, and to Google. Weir self-published this book originally, and it was a huge hit on Amazon.com. Then Crown Publishers picked up the book, foreign publishers picked it up, and the film rights were picked up.