The Martian by Andy Weir begins as a typical castaway tale: the protagonist finds himself suddenly alone in a barren wasteland dependent only on his wits to survive. In this case, however, the castaway is astronaut Mark Watney and the barren wasteland Mars.
A sudden sandstorm forces the Ares 3 crew to abort their mission early. Mark, having been impaled by a satellite antenna and then seen tumbling down a hill, is presumed dead and left behind. Mark survives his injuries but awakens to the realization that he is alone, the next manned mission isn’t scheduled to arrive for four years, and even with rationing he only has enough food to last a little over a year.
From the first line of the novel (“I’m pretty much fucked.”), Mark approaches his situation with humor and ingenuity. Possessed of a firm stubborn streak, Mark decides that rather than be the first person to die on Mars, he’s going to be the first person to live on Mars. So begins the “Mark Watney doesn’t die” project.
Quickly engaging the reader, the story follows Mark as he works to keep himself alive for the next four years. Using personal log entries, Mark chronicles his successes (farming potatoes using a mixture of Earth and Martian soil combined with water made from rocket fuel) and his failures (nearly blowing himself into oblivion while trying to make said water). Things get even more interesting when NASA realizes through analyzing satellite imagery that Mark is still alive.
Interspersed with the log entries are alternating chapters (told from a third person narrative) which show NASA in crisis mode and give the reader insight into the minds of those making life or death decisions from almost 250 million miles away.
Life as We Knew It shares very little with The Martian in my mind. Both feature strong protagonists of above average intelligence, and both have a strong set of secondary characters designed to help the main character achieve survival, but the similarities end there. The Martian reads more in the style of classic science fiction, where Life As We Knew It, reads more like another in a long line of post-apocalyptic YA novels.
Comparing The Martian to No Man Friday or Welcome to Mars is far more fair, but both fall victim to their time period. The scientific accuracy of No Man Friday is quite plausible for the mid 1950’s. The narrator, Rex Gordon, follows much the same process as Mark Watney in producing oxygen and water, and the ship used to carry the seven astronauts to Mars bears a marked resemblance to the pointy rockets used in the early space race. In addition, both novels clearly owe a considerable amount of their plots to Robinson Crusoe, and No Man Friday in fact references it frequently. At this point however, their plots diverge as Gordon discovers and tries to communicate with giant Martian centipedes, while Mark remains alone.
In Welcome to Mars, eighteen year old Dolph Haertel invents an anti-gravity device and then, telling his parents he’s going camping for the weekend, sets off for Mars. I am in fact not completely convinced that Welcome to Mars was not deliberately farsicle. The novel is set sometime between the 1980’s and 1990’s and yet man has not yet travelled to the moon. Also, Haertel’s science is described in the novel as having “swallowed Einstein the way Einstein swallowed Newton…”
Hartel is conveniently joined by his Earthly girlfriend with whom he left the instructions for his anti-gravity device and together they discover oxygen producing lichens growing on the planet.
Aside from the common element of becoming stranded, I did not feel that Welcome to Mars is a fair comparison to The Martian by even the most generous stretch of the imagination.
As with Year Zero, The Martian’s protagonist is a completely believable character. While it would have been easy to create a hero who is in all ways better than everyone else, Weir avoids this by creating Mark as someone who is more likely to annoy others with his glib humor than incite hero worship. As a reader, I enjoyed the gallows humor and sarcastic quips, but to others this may be off-putting. While Nick Carter in Year Zero was decidedly more self centered than Mark Watney, both share the same devil may care attitude, and a tendency to channel their inner twelve year old when cracking jokes.
Year Zero’s tone is far more reminscent of Douglas Adams, but both novels intermingle a bit of fun within the seriousness, and each has more than a few laugh out loud moments. Mark and Nick’s approach their respective situations creates a sense of of levity, offsetting what could otherwise turn into a festival of wallow and self pity.
Mark’s experiments with modifying the NASA Hab for long term use, show not just unique creativity, but also serve to demonstrate the extreme lengths to which a person is driven by the simple will to survive. As a reader, I found myself quickly engrossed in the storyline, cheering for Mark with each success and feeling a genuine sense of disappointment or anxiety with each failure.
Weir’s attention to detail and his scientific accuracy is nearly impeccable. Those looking for plausibility will be hard pressed to find fault in Weir’s research. Those with a less technical mindset or without a fairly advanced level of scientific knowledge may find themselves bogged down by some of the details. I found myself having to stop on more than one occasion to Google various aspects of Mark’s McGyver-like maneuvers, which was at times jarring due to how engrossed I had been in the book up to that point.
I would encourage the reader to stick with the book, however, as The Martian features a complex, fast paced plot that immediately draws in the reader, making them eager to follow along on Project Mark Watney Doesn’t Die.