Recounting the aftermath of the accidental abandonment of astronaut Mark Watney on the surface of Mars when a severe dust storm forced the Ares 3 expedition to abandon their mission, on the way to the evacuation vehicle Watney was struck by flying debris, lost in the storm with the telemetry link on his suit damaged. Believing him to have been killed instantly, the correct course of action was for the rest of the crew to continue the evacuation without endangering further lives.
Through a fluke of blind luck Watney survived, the dust and the clotted blood from his injury having sealed the breach in his suit, and he must find a way to continue surviving until the Ares 4 mission arrives on the other side of the planet, 1412 sols (Martian days since the lander touched down) later. Unable to communicate with Earth, Watney must repair the damage to himself, restore power to the habitat, repair any damage it has suffered during the storm and find a way to prolong the various life support mechanisms far beyond their expected lifespan.
Most critical in the long term is the remaining food supply; even with one person on a reduced diet to support rather than six, he will still starve to death long before Ares 4 is due, and even if provision had been made for seeds, Martian soil is incapable of supporting growth. Trained in engineering and botany Watney must use his skills and ingenuity to work around these obstacles and contact his distant mission control who believe him dead.
The early chapters are told in a log entry style of Watney’s daily tribulations which later alternates with a more conventional narrative as parallel events on Earth are introduced, but all the characters are ciphers in service of the unfolding events, there to provide explanatory dialogue of which there is a great deal rather than to present the appearance of being real people, Weir as inventive in finding new ways to explain technicalities (internal NASA meetings, press conferences, news broadcasts) as Watney is in jerry-rigging spacesuits and rovers.
Despite being the principal narrator Watney never comes across as anything other than a mechanism by which to explore and explain the problems and his solutions. Beneath his tireless efficiency and resolute dedication he has little personality, his sense of humour all that marks him out as human, his unflagging optimism an unconvincing proposition despite the assurances of his crewmates and the mission specialists that he is psychologically capable of surviving; it is doubtful that anyone could handle the pressure of such total and profound isolation, a whole empty world to themselves on which they will most likely die without ever seeing another human.
The son of a particle physicist and a former software programmer himself, Weir conducted extensive research on the many and diverse disciplines covered in the book, and it is an undeniably accomplished achievement which has more than a passing resemblance to A Fall of Moondust, Arthur C Clarke’s Hugo nominated 1961 tale of the passengers and crew of the dust cruiser Selene, buried in the Sea of Thirst following a moonquake, both narratives essentially a series of individual crises which must be overcome by engineering skill and the adaptability of their protagonists, unsure whether rescue efforts are being made or if they must save themselves.
In that, The Martian is a hugely inspirational novel about the genuine possibilities and inherent dangers of space exploration as Watney becomes the longest serving solo space pioneer, seeing more of the red planet than any other person in history, the quest to rescue him leading to unprecedented cross-departmental cooperation first within the various American space agencies then across international borders, sidestepping politics as the whole world watches with an anticipation beyond that of even the first Moon landing, the most famous man on two planets.
A fast moving and easy read, The Martian is the science fiction equivalent of an “airport novel,” a page turner of constant event but little depth though admirable in that it is the truest form of science fiction, adhering utterly to physical laws and engineering capability without resorting to the fantastical, yet despite the functionality of the prose the reader cannot help but be engaged with the efforts of Watney to survive and his comrades on Earth to arrange an impossible rescue, refusing to consider that any failing on their part will condemn their distant comrade to a lonely death.