The art of engineering is finding solutions.
Engineering is applied science. The scientist will find out that a high enough force applied over a small area will provide tremendous pressure: the engineer will use the knowledge to fashion the sword. The scientist will discover that magnetic fields, when cut by cables, will produce electricity: the engineer will design the generator with this information. The scientist will posit e=mc2: the engineer… (Well, you get the drift. No need to go into that.)
Mark Watney is an astronaut, a botanist and an engineer – but primarily an engineer, as evinced by his sheer glee of fiddling with machinery and recording his antics faithfully in a laconic fashion, even when faced with the prospect of a lonely death on Mars. The Martian is Mark’s valiant tale of survival in an inhospitable terrain beyond imagination. I would have called it Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but old Rob had nothing as challenging Mark had in odds against survival – so calling Mark Crusoe would, I feel, be sort of demeaning.
Watney is part of the Mars mission Ares 3, and is left for dead when the crew does an emergency evacuation in the face of a sudden deadly dust storm. The good news is that he does not die – the bad news is that he is the only person in the universe who is aware of it.
Actually, this is the backstory. The novel properly begins with Mark alone on the red planet, opening his log with the following passage:
I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion.
Of course, being the engineer he is, Mark is not willing to let go of life without giving it a shot at staying alive. What follows is his attempt to do so, and makes up pretty much the lion’s share of the story.
From an engineer’s point of view, the novel is terrifically exciting – as Mark ponders each problem threatening his continued existence and works out solutions to each one of them. I was pulled into the tale, and literally devoured each technical tidbit, rooting for Mark as I did so. But I think someone with a non-technical background might get lost unless they skip all the details and take it on faith that whatever the protagonist did was within the realms of possibility. With my Chemical Engineering background, I can assure you that almost all the engineering described in this book is not even stretching the imagination – most of it is business as usual (I especially loved the making of water inside the hab).
Suspense is maintained throughout by making the survival neither too difficult nor too easy – and the helplessness of NASA, even after spotting their man on Mars, to do anything urgent due to the sheer distances involved. Andy Weir has put in a lot of effort to make his world believable.
And therein lies the novel’s major weakness – it’s all Mark Watney and Mars. The other characters, even though tantalizingly sketched, are never fully fleshed out. We don’t know what makes them tick. Commander Lewis, Martinez, Vogel, Beck , Johanssen, Venkat Kapoor, Mitch, Bruce Ng – we feel that these characters have a life, but that Weir was not much interested in showing it to us.
Oh well – maybe it’s too much to expect characterisation in SF.