One sure aspect about The Martian is that it is gripping. Edge-of-the-seat gripping. I started reading it while waiting for the bus. I was hooked! Pages kept turning briskly on the way home in the bus, through dinner, all the way through the night until dawn. Took a few hours of sleep and then soldiered on until its happy and predictable ending.
Written by Andy Weir, a programmer by profession, this book got popular quickly and was made into a movie starring Matt Damon last year. Like pulp thrillers, it is very easy to read and the pace is fast. The year is 2035 and humans have walked on Mars thanks to a couple of Ares missions by NASA. Things go wrong during the Ares 3 mission and the crew aborts its stay on the red planet and escapes. Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead and left behind, but he is not. He makes his way safely back to their dome called Hab. There is ample food, air and power for him to stay inside the Hab for a year. Turns out he is a smart ass botanist and engineer and he figures out how to grow potatoes and make water and survive longer. However, the next Ares mission is 4 years away and Mars starts throwing a spanner into his plans mere days into his stay there.
Weir packs his pages full of ingenious solutions and techniques for his astronaut to survive. Every other page is littered with calculations resembling those statement problems we had in school with Mark computing his chances with this or that solution. All of this lends a strong aura of believability to the preposterous plot. It is quite mind boggling how much of basic math and science can be used when in crisis to fix problems. This book is essentially Apollo 13, but on a gigantic scale and with the mind of a brilliant engineer at work. It is hard not to root for this tiny human unflaggingly taking on the problems thrown by an entire planet at him. He has to literally make air, water and food to survive for years on a planet that offers none of them. How can you resist this yarn?
The biggest letdown of this engaging book however was its writing, which is sadly just mediocre. An American teen vibe pervades all the conversations. I can guess that Hollywood screenwriters had very little work converting this into a blockbuster script. Man has reached Mars and these adult astronauts talk about jocks and geeks and wedgies! You get the idea. Make no mistake, the science chops are very strong in this book, every ludicrous plan is meticulously backed by reasoning and the book is quite unputdownable. However, one does feel that a simple writing workshop for the author could have vaulted the book further into greatness.