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Originally published March 15, 2014 at 3:03 AM | Page modified March 15, 2014 at 10:24 PM

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‘The Martian’: Stranded on Mars, botanist battles to survive

Andy Weir’s “The Martian” is a nail-biting science-fiction thriller about a botanist stranded on Mars, racing against time to survive until a rescue mission arrives.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘The Martian’

by Andy Weir

Crown, 369 pp., $24

Mark Watney awoke with a headache, a chest wound and a torn spacesuit. But that wasn’t the worst of it. He was alone. On Mars.

It wasn’t supposed to work out this way. Watney was a botanist and the lowest- ranking member of a landing party on Mars. All was fine until an over-the-top sand storm forced the team to abort the mission. But before they could evacuate, the wind destroyed a radio tower, the debris tore Watney’s suit and nearly impaled him, and tumbled him out of sight. As the storm worsened and threatened to destroy the escape ship, and the readings from Watney’s spacesuit indicated he was dead, the crew was forced to leave.

But he survived. Now, he has a habitat with medical supplies and plenty of air, but food that will run short years before a rescue mission can reach him and no way to communicate with Earth. Maybe worse, he has an inexhaustible supply of crappy 1970s television reruns and disco music. Against those odds, he’s not ready to give up. Using potatoes included for a Thanksgiving feast and earth soil brought along for experiments, he turns the habitat into a giant potato field.

Back on Earth, a bored satellite technician monitoring her site at 2 a.m. realizes Watney is alive and electrifies the world with the news. But on Mars, Watney faces an unremittingly hostile environment and equipment designed to last days, not years, as he puzzles out, with gallows humor, how to travel over 3,000 kilometers to the landing site of the next Martian expedition. And stay alive for two years to make it there. It’s a sort of gigantic math story problem.

“The Martian” is a superb science-fiction thriller written by first-time author Andy Weir, a self-professed lifelong space nerd. Weir began writing the book in 2009, trying to make it as scientifically accurate as possible. Watney, for example, produces water by reacting hydrazine with carbon dioxide over an iridium catalyst, then burning the resulting hydrogen. He’s elated: “This was the best plan ever! Not only was I clearing out the hydrogen, I was making more water! Everything went great right up to the explosion.”

Rejected by publishers, Weir self-published the book on his own website, then as an Amazon Kindle version and, after 35,000 downloads in three months, he finally was signed to a contract. The book has been optioned for movie rights by Twentieth Century Fox. Like his main character, Weir just wouldn’t give up.

But this is not merely a science-fiction geek fest. Moral choices abound. Should the returning crew be told while still in transit that they left Watney behind alive? At what cost should a rescue mission be mounted? Is it worth risking the lives of several people to save one? And who should decide?

Relief turns to horror as one catastrophe after another befalls Watney. The pace quickens as he races against time, the nonnegotiable absolutes of physics and distance. Weir infuses the book with enough science, math and physics to infuse the story with awful plausibility. It’s a first novel worth every minute of lost sleep you’ll suffer reading it.

Kevin J. Hamilton is a Seattle lawyer.

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