The Martian by Andy Weir
This was a fun book. A hell of a lot of fun. This is fairly unique because it’s quite definitely hard science fiction: set in the near future where we have made more advanced spacecraft, but nothing outside of our abilities, and used them to start a manned exploration program to Mars, this is the story of an astronaut who gets left behind accidentally. There is a storm on the surface of Mars, and he is hit by falling debris when the storm blows over parts of the mission’s base camp; his heart monitor is destroyed and he is thrown far out into the dust storm, so the rest of his crew think he is dead; they look for him, but have to leave in a hurry before the storm destroys their liftoff craft and strands them all on the surface to die.
So this guy, who happens to be the mission’s botanist and mechanical engineer, is not in fact killed, and he wakes up to realize they have left him behind. The book is then his attempts first to survive, and then to contact Earth so they can help him survive, until the next Mars mission lands in three years or so.
I know, I know, most people have seen the movie with Matt Damon; I haven’t, so the book was brand new for me, and therefore very exciting. I am normally not excited by hard science fiction, by talk about machines and rockets and physics and acceleration and mass and interstellar travel and such; but I have also found that most authors of hard science fiction tend to lean on science more than on storytelling or character development. (There are hundreds of sci-fi authors I have not read, so I’m sure there are plenty that do it well. No offense meant.)
Andy Weir doesn’t do that, however. He does have some very hard science: he is himself an astrophysicist who has worked for the space program; there are several characters who focus quite a bit on the math and the physics and the probabilities. But the main character is a joker, who doesn’t take anything too seriously; clearly it is something that is necessary to help him survive the ordeal — just the thought that he has been left behind on an alien planet, where he will have to be alone for years, without enough food or water or the means to save himself, would be enough to break anyone but an eternal optimist, so it makes sense that he is exactly that — and it makes his narration so much more fun to read than most sci-fi characters that I’ve hit upon. And though there are more serious scientist-characters at NASA, and some of them do take themselves too seriously, the book does not; it shows disagreements that lead up to insults sometimes, and several of the characters are described — often by themselves — as being bad with people. It makes them more human, and the science more palatable.
The last factor that made this interesting is the theme: it isn’t about the need for space exploration, or the value of science, or the future of mankind in the universe; all those things come up, but really, the book is about this: what is the value of one human life? If you could save a life, what would you do, what would you spend, what would you give up to do it? That is an interesting question, and this book provides an interesting answer. I hope it’s the same one that all of us would give.
Highly recommended. Dunno if it’s better than the movie, but it’s a damn good book.