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The Martian by Andy Weir

August 24, 2014


Mark Watney is an astronaut with a problem. He and his crew were on Mars when they were hit by an massive dust storm. Part of an antenna broke off something and hit Watney, ripping into his suit. When he woke, he was the only one left on the planet. His crew, based on what they witnessed and the flat-lining biometric readouts from Watney’s suit, left what they believed was his lifeless body in an attempt to save their own lives. Now they’re on the long voyage back to Earth and Watney has a few things to figure out.

After getting the cold shoulder from literary agents, Andy Weir self-published The Martian on his website in 2012. With encouragement from fans, he released a Kindle version, setting the price as low as he could—99 cents. It hit number one on Amazon’s best-seller list. It was then picked up by publishers and is now in development to be released as a major motion picture. That alone is a good story. But when you read The Martian, you get a very good sense of Andy Weir’s personality and what he’s trying to do.

The Martian may beat out Ready Player One for the nerdiest book I’ve ever read. With a background in computer science, Weir set out to write a book that was as accurate as possible based on existing technology. He researched his subject heavily and goes into quite a bit of detail with the science, engineering, and math required to solve the various problems the characters face. If you are an engineer and a sci-fi fan, you should probably read this book now. If you’re only one of those, you’ll still probably find The Martian interesting and/or entertaining.

The story is a fun ride, although some of the writing has to be forgiven along the way. It is sometimes heavy-handed, sometimes a little schlocky. The jokes sometimes hit, but there are a fair number of groaners. Don’t read this for the writing. Read it for the classic story-telling conceit of giving a protagonist a simple goal at the beginning (Watney needs to get back to Earth), then throwing obstacle after obstacle between him and that goal. Because of the research and detail here, what one witnesses is not just a good story but a good lesson in problem solving. Like an engineer, Watney conquers challenge after challenge by breaking them down into minute parts and solving them piece by piece, never letting the immensity of the full challenge deter him from the task at hand. I don’t know if it’s actually possible to farm potatoes on Mars, but by the time the story has reached that point, I believe it’s possible.

According to the Wall Street Journal, after Weir found success through self-publishing, he did land an agent. The agent pitched The Martian as “Apollo 13 meets Castaway.” That’s a pretty spot-on description, though I might also toss in MacGyver.

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