New space adventure novel might as well be titled ‘MacGyver goes to Mars’

Posted Sunday, Mar. 02, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

The Martian

by Andy Weir

Crown, $24

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Imagine a resourceful Robinson Crusoe in space. A MacGyver stranded on Mars.

That’s the premise of Andy Weir’s The Martian (Crown, $24), an entertaining and exhilarating debut novel in which astronaut Mark Watney, one of the first people to walk on Mars, must manage to stay alive on the inhospitable red planet long enough for a long-shot rescue mission to come get him.

The odds are definitely not in his favor. The crew of Ares 3 evacuated the planet and left Watney for dead, an honest mistake, during a violent Martian sandstorm on the sixth day of a 31-day mission.

Once our hero takes stock of his situation and crunches the numbers, he calculates that he has enough power, air, water and food to survive for 490 solar days. The problem is, Ares 4, the first possible rescue ship, isn’t scheduled to arrive on Mars until Sol 1412.

What’s more, it’s going to land thousands of kilometers away from Watney’s location.

And did we mention that he has no way of coordinating a rescue plan with NASA — or even letting Houston know he’s still alive — because the communications satellite was destroyed in the storm?

But Watney, the mission’s smart-aleck mechanical engineer and botanist, is a marvel of ingenuity.

When it comes to outside-the-box problem-solving, he makes MacGyver look like an amateur. He’s all of the resourceful minds that saved the day for Apollo 13 rolled into one.

Time and again, problem after problem, Watney recognizes the futility of his situation, comes to terms with the fact that death is the only logical outcome, and then comes up with a crazy-brilliant solution that enables him to keep going.

He solves his problem of a limited food supply, for example, by turning the Hab, the small pressurized module that serves as his living quarters, into more than 125 square meters of potato farm.

He jury-rigs a radio that allows him to talk to NASA by scavenging the hardware from Pathfinder, the now-antiquated probe that landed on Mars back in 1997.

He “pimps” his Martian rover, which was designed to travel no farther than 35 kilometers, so that he can undertake an arduous 3,200-kilometer journey to the Ares 4 landing site.

And finally, he strips the already-there Mars Ascent Vehicle down to the bones, literally removing such essentials as windows and part of the hull (and covering the holes with mere canvas), so he can make a perfectly timed launch to rendezvous with the rescue ship as it flies overhead at 5.8 kilometers per second!

The author is a software engineer and lifelong “space nerd” whose interests and hobbies include relativistic physics, orbital mechanics and the history of manned spaceflight.

All this uniquely specific know-how, combined with a fertile imagination and an offbeat sense of humor, allowed Weir to concoct a rousing science-based “what if?” adventure story.

I’m going to leave it to someone with a larger brain than mine to go over the science and determine whether Watney’s outrageous MacGyverisms are actually all doable. As far as I was concerned, he is close enough, convincing enough, to suspend any disbelief I might have had going in.

Once Weir accomplished that monumental feat, he had me completely captivated, the same way that the entire population of Earth, once it learns that Watney is still alive, becomes obsessed with his every move on Mars. We’re all rooting for him to make it.

The Martian is destined to become a crowd-pleasing motion picture.

Weir already has sold the movie rights to writer-producer Simon Kinberg, whose credits include the “X-Men” film franchise, Elysium and Disney XD’s upcoming Star Wars Rebels animated TV series.

Weir — whose astronaut idol is Apollo 16’s John Young, the epitome of calm under pressure — has said he would like to see Aaron Paul (of Breaking Bad) or Chris Evans (aka Captain America) play Watney.

Even if that wish doesn’t come true, Weir has nothing to worry about.

With a story this good, all of Hollywood’s finest young actors will be fighting over the role.

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