Cover image of "The Martian," a hard SF classic

If you think you’ve got trouble, meet Mark Watney. It’s sometime in the 2030s or 2040s. Mark is an American astronaut, the seventeenth person to set foot on Mars. Unfortunately for him, he’s been left behind for dead by his five crewmates once a huge sandstorm aborted their mission after just six days on the planet. But that’s just the beginning of his problems in this hard SF classic, and everything else starts to go wrong.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Don’t expect to see bug-eyed Martian monsters or ethereal intelligences that invade Mark’s mind and guide his destiny. Unlike the overwhelming majority of SF that’s published every year, which is dominated by fantasy rather than by science, this is hard science fiction. From beginning to end, this tale is based on facts and technology that are already well known. And a truly engaging tale it is, with suspense to match the most artful thriller.

This is a hard SF classic that’s very, very funny

Such a geeky book as The Martian, which is full of mathematical calculations and botanical reasoning, could easily be monumentally boring. It’s not. It’s not just suspenseful—it’s very, very funny. Mark’s “journal” of his time on Mars is irreverent. He’s a wiseass. He’s also one of the most resourceful human beings you could possibly imagine. His cleverness is peerless. And it’s a joy to read how he uses practical knowledge to dig himself out of his predicament.

The Martian by Andy Weir (2011) 384 pages ★★★★☆

Photo of Mars surface, the location of this hard SF classic
A high-resolution photo of the Mars surface obtained by NASA’s Curiosity rover in 2020. This is what Mark Watney contends with when no sandstorm is blowing. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Here’s a clue to Watney’s wisdom: “Duct tape works anywhere.”

The Martian is chock full of engineering wisdom. For example,”Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.” and “They say no plan survives first contact with implementation. I’d have to agree.”

The book’s first-time author, Andy Weir, a computer scientist and son of a particle physicist, has thoroughly researched all the fields relevant to an astronaut’s experience on the surface of Mars, and he does a credible enough job in portraying Mark Watney. There are also the makings of believable personalities in some of the minor characters, but they fall apart at times as Mark’s irreverence becomes suspiciously contagious.

A publishing phenomenon

The Martian is one of those wonders of contemporary publishing. It first saw the light of day through self-publishing in 2011. Unable to interest agents or publishers, Weir released the novel for 99 cents in a Kindle edition. When he’d sold 35,000 copies in three months, pushing the book to the top of Amazon’s science fiction category, Crown Publishing bought the rights to reissue the title in 2014. It spent a lot of time on the New York Times bestseller list after that.

If you like science fiction, and especially if you love hard science fiction, the sort of story that’s grounded in science, you’ll love The Martian.

About the author

Photo of Andy Weir, author of this hard SF classic
Andy Weir. Image: Wikipedia

The Martian was Andy Weir‘s first published novel. It capped a twenty-year career as a software engineer. As a bestselling book adapted to film by Ridley Scott, the novel earned him enough money to turn full-time to writing. He has since written two additional novels, five serial novels and long stories, and a passel of short stories, as well as comics, graphic novels, audio, and other works.

Weir was born in 1972 and raised in Milpitas, California, the son of a particle physicist and an electrical engineer. He studied computer science at the University of California, San Diego, but dropped out before graduating. On his author website, Weir describes himself as “a lifelong space nerd and a devoted hobbyist of such subjects as relativistic physics, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight.” It shows in The Martian. He and his wife, Ashley, have a son, who was born in 2021.

For the record, I’ve also reviewed Andy Weir’s 2021 novel, Project Hail Mary (The new Andy Weir novel celebrates engineering—again). As you’ll see, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much.

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