Exhibit A is our hero here: Wise-cracking astronaut Mark Watney. Watney, as he tells us in the opening line of the novel, is pretty much fucked. He was a member a six-person manned mission to Mars. On the 6th day, a storm forced an evacuation, but Watney was clobbered with a piece of communications equipment, and his crew, thinking he was a goner, left him.
Now, Watney must figure out how to survive. Using his training as a botanist and a mechanical engineer, Watney makes water from leftover fuel, grows potatoes, and amazingly, is able to re-establish communications with NASA. But as you'd expect, obstacles continue to present themselves, and Watney must continue thinking quickly to solve them with the meager supplies and equipment he has on hand.
This is a fantastic novel for several reasons. Yes, the man against nature survival aspect is great — you'll think of this as Castaway On Mars. But also the science and problem-solving Watney displays — and this isn't survival for dummies — is really fascinating for anyone with an inclination toward science. Weir gets pretty technical on everything from chemical reactions to rocket design and engineering to hacking computers systems. I don't claim to understand everything, or even close to everything, but Weir definitely seems to know what he's talking about. You trust him. And it's all very fascinating.
But the best part of this book is the character Watney himself — he's right out of central casting for the nerdy science dude whose only defense against the world is sharp-witted, often juvenile, humor. Naturally, I loved it. Try this exchange on for size, between NASA who, at kind of a tense moment, is telling him how to modify one of the rovers to connect to the other:
NASA: What we can see of your planned cut looks good. We're assuming the other side is identical. You're cleared to start drilling.Honestly, that's probably a bad example for how funny this novel really is (but, that one, because it was unexpected, hit me pretty hard right in the funny). Watney's often a bit more clever than this. But if Weir's goal is to get you to like Watney in order to root for him as hard you do, then mission accomplished. Over the course of the last hundred pages or so, things move so quickly, you have to remind yourself to breathe. Will Watney be saved?
Watney: That's what she said.
It's a novel you're thinking about constantly when you're not reading, wondering what new problem Watney will have to overcome next (will he get to eat the ration he's saved for when he "Survived Something That Should Have Killed Me"?). I loved this book, and think most other readers will too.