Forget everything you've ever heard a creationist try to tell you about how the universe is "fine-tuned" for human life. Go pretty much anywhere other than Mother Earth, and you'll learn very quickly that the universe is quite eager to kill you, and has an endless variety of ways to do it. Astronaut Mark Watney must learn this lesson the hard way, when a freak accident leaves him stranded alone on the surface of the red planet in The Martian, a tense and meticulously researched debut from software engineer Andy Weir. Originally self-published in 2011, the book enjoyed a major hardcover release in 2014 and has been optioned by Hollywood, who clearly hope to have found their next Gravity.
That aside, The Martian is brilliant hard SF through and through, taking the battle-hardened Analog solve-the-problem formula to what may very well be its apotheosis. Weir puts his protagonist in the most desperate of survival situations. A massive storm forces the Ares 3 mission to abort, but Watney is struck by flying debris during evacuation and presumed dead. In order to stay alive against what any sane assessment would call insurmountable odds, the engineer/botanist must take into account literally every detail. Where will he get food? He can grow potatoes. But how can he create soil for them to grow in? How much water will they need to grow, versus his own hydration needs? What mixture of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen is optimal in the habitat? Practically each individual molecule must be accounted for and strictly measured.
Showing an ingenuity that comes from a combination of his training, and of having no real alternative, Watney resourcefully MacGyvers all manner of available equipment to serve his needs. He even recovers the long-spent Pathfinder probe so he can communicate with NASA back home, the original communications array having been destroyed in the initial storm. Once Earth is in the loop, the race is on. Watney's sole hope of recovery seems to be the next scheduled Ares mission, which is still a long, long way off. Is there a way to resupply him, to keep him alive for the agonizing, endless lonely months he must endure? Or is there a way, albeit one not without great risk, to recover him even sooner? Or is it all just a forlorn hope, a painful postponement of the inevitable?
It's a testament both to Weir's storytelling gifts and his due diligence as a researcher that not a single moment in The Martian rings false. Even Watney's endlessly snarky attitude, which may seem to some readers a bit out of character for a guy facing possible cold imminent death, is an entirely believable psychological mechanism for facing such a situation. Truthfully, despair is a luxury, and one you cannot afford if you are really intent on living another day. And finding yourself alone on the surface of an alien world — well, that's when you're going to be intent.
It is true that sometimes the story goes into so much exhaustive detail about each and every (admittedly brilliant) plan Watney executes that any reader who isn't an engineer or similar breed of geek might feel their eyes start to glaze from time to time. And as far as character development goes, while Weir makes Watney extremely relatable, most of the boffins back at NASA he has to deal with feel largely indistinct, interchangable. But there are moments in this novel so suspenseful that hardcover readers risk severe paper cuts, and the climax is suitably thrilling. Andy Weir has delivered one of SF's most impressive debuts since John Scalzi's Old Man's War, and in him, I think we might well be looking — at long last — at a viable successor to the legacy of Arthur C. Clarke. Though I wish the man weren't so down on 1970s television. I mean, Sanford and Son was pretty good, actually.