Space Age Robinson Crusoe has mettle tested on Mars

Here’s a short piece of mine which ran in yesterday’s Irish Examiner

The Martian The Martian
Andy Weir
Del Rey; £9.99
Review: Val Nolan

Abandoned on Mars by a crew who believes him killed in a freak accident, astronaut Mark Watney finds himself with limited supplies and no way of communicating with Earth. The Martian astrosphere is “damn near vacuum” and the planet itself is a “barren, unreachable, godforsaken wasteland” in which he is completely alone. With NASA’s next Mars landing years away, can Watney survive against the elements with no replacement parts for crucial equipment like his Oxygenator and Water Reclaimer?

Andy Weir’s addictive debut novel is a sustained answer to that question. A recommended read for those who enjoy a healthy dose of technical detail and old fashioned human ingenuity, most of The Martian takes the form of solitary log entries, Watney’s first-person narration which, though it displays flashes of frustration, quickly humanises the character via self-deprecating humour and a can-do attitude.

A botanist and engineer (astronauts are typically trained in multiple disciplines), Watney uses logic and care to jury-rig solutions to mechanical failures, oncoming dust storms, and even the prospect of starvation. He electrolyzes his urine to produce the hydrogen he needs for fuel and he composts his solid waste to cultivate bacteria for the desiccated Martian dirt he has mixed with water and fortuitous samples of Earth soil (“My asshole is doing as much to keep me alive as my brain,” he says).

Weir does a terrific job of making things worse and worse for his protagonist. This Martian Crusoe’s successes – such as growing a potato crop from taters intended for the crew’s Thanksgiving meal – are balanced by a series of well thought out setbacks: explosive decompressions, fried electronics, and even rovers overturned by the unpredictable Martian terrain.

Interspersed with this are NASA’s efforts to contact and rescue Watney. While these asides, typically depicting meetings and media briefings, take time to develop the same energy and, unexpectedly, the same verisimilitude as the astronaut’s Martian monologues, this is but a minor quibble. Indeed, the Earthside sections gain momentum in the novel’s back half as rescue plans take shape and the politicking, of both a bureaucratic and an international variety, gives way to action.

Moreover, a clever cameo by the Pathfinder probe and its Sojourner rover offers a nice nod to the real-life history of Mars exploration in a novel which asks some tough questions about the merits of manned missions vis-à-vis robotic exploration. Weir, an unashamed space geek, usually comes down on the side of humans and our propensity to think laterally and take risks. Certainly Watney is a goofy but effective poster child for both tendencies; a hero of necessity in an essential novel for Science Fiction fans.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 15 March 2014 (Weekend, p.36).

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