Meet Mark Watney. He is, in his own words, pretty much fucked.
Mark is an astronaut on a mission to Mars. On the sixth day of the mission, a sand storm wreaks havoc and Mark is left for dead by the rest of his team, who escape back to earth. Mark, however, wakes up a little later, very hungover, very alive and very, very alone. It’s a nightmare scenario for a professional couch potato like me.
There is a reason, however, that Mark is an astronaut where I am not: after having a bit of a (well justified) freakout, he immediately begins to make plans for survival. A botanist and excellent tinkerer, he spends much of the book trying to find ways to survive and to contact NASA to come and pick him up.
The story is told from two perspectives: Mark’s data logs on Mars, and high-ranking NASA team members back on earth. The whole situation is a bit of a head-scratcher for the both of them, and it’s the juxtaposition that is interesting: while NASA battles public opinion, Mark battles potatoes. It helps that Mark is a pretty funny guy; when he does finally manage to contact earth, boob jokes are involved.
A significant part of the book is devoted to the technical side of surviving on Mars, and though I enjoyed the various explanations, the closest I come to engineering is Ikea manuals so to me it occasionally read like gibberish, and I got a bit bored with page after page of manuals on how to generate oxygen or water. Mark is a likeable fella; for someone stuck on Mars with nothing but disco music and crappy seventies TV shows for entertainment, he’s pretty funny and upbeat. The rest of the characters are little more than stereotypes: the brave astronaut, the savvy PR person, the heroic team leader, the plucky assistant, the mildly autistic wunderkind, etcetera.
The plot is mercifully free of actual Martians, creepy spiders, psychopaths, or anything else Hollywood has put on the red planet in the past few decade; actual moments of terror stem mostly from Mark’s own fuck-ups, because not much else happens on Mars. His frustration at discovering that the minor detail he has overlooked may imperil him even further is very relatable.
I enjoyed reading this book, but it’s not one that I’ll keep on my shelf. My father’s birthday is tomorrow. He’s an engineer. I have a sneaking suspicion he might be able to enjoy all the technobabble much more than I could.
(As a general disclaimer: I haven’t seen the film. Matt Damon? Really?)