One of the endorsements on the back cover of The Martian bills the novel as a “survival thriller,” the tale of a man trying to endure alone on the incredibly inhospitable planet Mars. But the driving force of Andy Weir’s debut isn’t tension; it’s humor. From the first line of the book—“I’m pretty much fucked”—the protagonist’s glibness in the face of such threats as starvation, asphyxiation, and freezing to death is what make it so easy to hang on every word about his trials.
The book follows Mark Watney, a botanist and mechanical engineer left behind by the rest of his crew after they saw him impaled in a Martian sandstorm during their attempt to leave the planet. Watney survived his injuries and continues to come up with a series of ingenious and increasingly desperate attempts to survive long enough for NASA to rescue him, attempts that involve everything from farming potatoes using water made from rocket fuel to modifying a rover so he can recover a 1997 probe.
The Martian manages to have a good excuse for having a hero who can solve almost every problem while still being hilarious: NASA had the luxury of only sending geniuses that can stay in good spirits while floating in space for months. Most of the story is told through Watney’s logs, which go into plenty of detail about what he’s doing and why. The book is interspersed with information about astrophysics, chemistry, farming, nutrition, and engineering. Occasionally the long passages where Watney calculates just how far he can get with extremely limited power, air, and water get a little dry, but Weir knows how to lighten the mood by punctuating them with Watney’s musings about being a space pirate and using a radioactive block to take a hot bath.
While Watney’s voice is the most compelling, the book also spends time on the spaceship carrying his former crewmates and back at NASA, where it offers an Apollo 13-style look at the organization in crisis mode. This is where most of the book’s real tension is found, with pages filled with catastrophic failures, political infighting, and secret meetings to determine how much to risk saving Watney.
Weir knows how to build sympathy without being overly saccharine or melodramatic. With just a few paragraphs devoted to letters from Watney to his crew, Weir establishes the beautiful camaraderie between them. Similarly, the crew’s phone calls home breathe life into each supporting character, whether they’re reassuring their spouse, sibling, or a nagging parent.
Penned by a self-described space nerd, The Martian offers an idealistic view of NASA, where the organization finds the interest and funds to send multiple missions to Mars staffed by crews who are selflessly devoted to the mission and everyone involved with it. Yet it’s hard not to be swept up in his vision and root for everyone one of these characters to survive the hardships Weir puts them through.