I’m a firm believer in the First Paragraph Test. If you’re on the fence about a book, reading the first paragraph can be a good indicator of whether or not you should actually take the time to read it. “Hey, isn’t that like judging a book by its cover?” you may ask. Well, no, since an author often has little if any control over the cover. But the first paragraph, that’s where a smart author puts his best foot forward in an attempt to suck you in. A strong first line is even better, and any reader worth his or her salt has a few first lines that they’ll remember for the rest of their days (I’m a particular fan of “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed,” with a strong second place showing to “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”).
So when a well-hyped genre book has, as its first line, “I’m pretty much fucked,” well then, that sounds like a book that yours truly might be interested in. If that well-hyped genre book happens to be a fairly realistic tale of astronaut derring-do, all the better. And while I don’t normally buy hardbacks by first-time authors, the more I heard about Andy Weir’s The Martian, the closer I came to pulling the trigger. That first line sealed the deal. Haven’t regretted it for a second.
Mark Watney is the seventeen man to ever set foot on Mars. As part of the third manned mission to the Red Planet, he’s a botanist by trade, but he’s also a fair hand as a mechanic and scrounger. Which is good, because a near-catastrophe leaves him stranded. His fellow astronauts, already leaving the planet at a significant rate of speed, think he’s dead. He has no way to contact NASA. There’s about a dozen ways that Mars can kill him, some longer and more unpleasant than others.
And so begins one of the best survival stories I’ve ever read. It’s the mutant hybrid of Cast Away and Apollo 13, with enough technical details to lend it plausibility but not so many to bog down the proceedings. The amount of research that must have gone into the book is staggering, but Weir keeps things moving thanks mainly to his strong protagonist. Watney is MacGuyver with better tools, Chuck Noland with a better CV, Robinson Crusoe with a better sense of humor. He performs almost too well for someone with such long odds against survival, but the book moves so propulsively that it’s impossible not to cheer for him.
It is by no means a perfect book, of course. There are a few potential hazards that rather fizzle out (including a seemingly major one towards the end of the book). And while a variety of secondary characters, both on the ship and at NASA, provide mission-critical plot elements, one can’t help but miss Watney while catching up with events beyond the Red Planet. It’s a fairly short book, clocking in at 369 pages, and while I might have preferred a bit more girth, I’m not confident that Weir would have been able to pull it off without murdering the pacing. It’s quite a tightrope that Watney (and Weir) walk, with a story that’s equal parts ingenuity, Crusoic “infinite labor”, and mind-blowing tedium (thankfully elided, though downtime gives Watney an opportunity to briefly discourse on disco, Aquaman, and the great existential conundrum of the 1970’s, Mr. Roper vs Mr. Furley).
Amazon delivered the book last night. I started reading it around eleven, stayed up way past my bedtime, and finished around eleven this morning. Were it not for the damnable human need for sleep, I would have finished it in one sitting. So, yeah. If you’re a space geek, read this book. If you’re a sci-fi fan, read this book. If you like amazing survival stories, read this book. Hell, if you’re a member of the chordate phylum, read this book.