The Earth is obstructing his view of Venus...

The Earth is obstructing his view of Venus…

“I’m pretty much fucked.”

Science fiction exists on a sliding scale of hardness, much like minerals do. On the end of soft science fiction, there are sentient shades of blue, improbability drives and time machines that work “just because”. As you creep up to the harder stuff you pass over things like Doctor Who which sits somewhere in the middle, then find your way past Gattaca and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which use speculative but realistic science in their stories, and then you eventually hit the hardest science fiction of all, which has a severe grounding in reality, there aren’t any wibbly aliens on Venus and you can’t time travel.

The Martian sits quite comfortably in a science fiction spot that’s about as hard as is possible to be without being real life.

This is the story of Mark Watney, one of the Ares 3 crew, which, in the not-too-distant future, is the third manned mission to Mars. Planning to stay for thirty-one days, the crew encounter difficulties after day 6 and have to abandon the planet. However, while trying to get to their escape vessel, Mark is struck by a flying antenna and, with no choice but to push on, his five crewmates leave him for dead and return to orbiting base Hermes to head home.

But Watney is not dead. Against the odds, he has survived. Now he’s on Mars, entirely alone, with no way to contact either Hermes or the Earth. He is the most solitary man in history, with only a couple of rovers and a canvas tent to call home, and with no other missions coming to Mars for four years, he must find a way to survive. Back on Earth, satellites have picked up images that relay back to the folks at NASA that Watney is alive after all. They are also faced with a dilemma about what to do, and with the whole world watching, every moment is critical.

Despite the vast majority of the book being narrated by a man who is entirely alone, it’s oddly compelling. There is a distinct lack of dialogue throughout, and despite the fact that Mars probably isn’t the most exciting place in the universe, Weir writes with such captivating style that you feel like it might be. This is a book that I’ve had immense trouble putting down the last few days to do ordinary things like “go to work” or “eat”. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book this gripping.

There is a lot of very dense scientific jargon going on here too as Watney explains to his log what he’s been doing, although it mostly involves maths, fixing his habitat and making sure he doesn’t run out of food, water or oxygen. He does battle with the Martian elements and is a funny, brave and tenacious character, one who sometimes comes across as a little snide or arrogant, but with all that he’s going through, you can’t help but let him off. It might be very heavy on the science (and it’s apparently all researched thoroughly and accurate to current spacefaring knowledge) but it’s not a slog by any means and I at times found myself worried that the book was going to end. Of course, it does, and with no disappointment.

The location of Mars is also described in great wonder and some detail, particularly when Watney describes how it feels to be so alone.  It’s enough to get one excited about the idea of space exploration again. After all, it’s been about forty years since we last went anywhere further than Earth’s orbit – surely it’s time to get that mission to Mars underway? One must also give Watney credit for not going entirely mad during his lonely days, but I assume there’s some suspension of reality for that, as an insane narrator would quickly become boring and not be able to produce a viable story.

Weir apparently had great difficulty in getting the book published, after being rejected by a number of agents. I would imagine that a lot of this is down to the fact that the “average reader” would be seen as unable to understand the technological jargon. Weir self-published in 2012 anyway and proved that the “average reader” is a damn sight smarter than some industry people give them credit for – it sold well and was finally selected for publication earlier this year. Publishing houses, for reasons I do understand, are wary to publish anything unusual or what they view as “niche”, but sometimes that means they miss great books like this. I wonder how many other masterpieces have been self-published because they couldn’t get an agent and are now languishing deep down on Amazon, hidden behind books that publishers view as “safe”.

There aren’t any little green men but there don’t need to be because the idea of being the only person on a whole planet where any moment could be your last is terrifying and engaging enough. This is easily a contender for book of the year, and will stick with me for a long time. A simply sublime book that can hardly be faulted. Read this now, and you won’t regret it.

For a review of the film based on this book, click here.

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