Book: The Martian

The Martian by Andy Weir,Random House (2014), RRP $38.00

You would think that a story about an astronaut being injured and stranded around 60 million kilometres from home would act as a powerful warning to future generations about the dangers of space exploration. But The Martian is, perhaps, one of the best recruiting tools that NASA could ever find as it prepares for its 2030s mission to explore Mars on the Orion platform.

In this Robinson Crusoe tale for the space age, astronaut Mark Watney, one of the first men to walk on Mars, is injured in a dust storm. Assumed dead, the other crew members leave the planet and Watney to his fate. Given the insurmountable odds of any rescue, he faces almost certain death alone – it’s just a question of what will kill him first. But what happens next is a thrilling tale of survival as Watney has to use his engineering and scientific skills and the resources around him to give himself a chance to live.

This is hard science fiction at its modern best and indeed started with a very modern publishing paradigm. Andy Weir originally posted the story one chapter at a time on his website, before publishing the collection as an eBook for just $0.99 a copy.

The story also gives a real feeling for just how hard life on Mars will be for humans.

Watney overcomes the challenges of survival using a range of biology, chemistry, astrophysics, and other scientific and engineering principles. The technical details of his struggle are accurate and based on fact, but still explained well enough to be accessible for the non-scientific reader. For example, how do you produce enough water for a person to survive on a dry, hostile planet with limited resources? Without giving away one of the book’s secrets, with the right chemistry and maths, it turns out that it might just be possible, but not without some serious technical problems.

The story also gives a real feeling for just how hard life on Mars will be for humans and some of the many ways the red planet will try to kill anyone who steps on to its dusty soil.

There are some genuinely funny passages, and Weir has injected some believable humour in parts, like Watney’s musings over his crewmates' taste in music and bad television shows as he faces the boredom of being the most isolated man in human existence.

There’s also a sense that when “the Martian” is faced with some of the dire circumstances the author throws him into, the reasonable response would be safety first and seriousness, but the book’s approach is often more exciting and thrilling. That’s part of what makes the hero likeable and makes this book a great read.

While the supporting characters are not fleshed out as well as Watney it doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the story.

It’s an exciting book and apart from some strong language in parts (who wouldn’t swear when staring down death on Mars?) it would be a great way to inspire a budding teenage astronaut.

A movie based on the book starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott will be released later this year.

See also from Cosmos: Life on Mars - the evidence mounts

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