Shelf Care: In The Martian, a man's remote work situation goes badly

Book cover of The Martian by Andy Weir. PHOTO: BALLANTINE BOOKS

Science fiction

The Martian

By Andy Weir

Ballantine Books/ 2014/ 461 pages/ $17.12/ Available here

This is a book that will make you grateful to be working from home. Because astronaut Mark Watney is stuck in an office that is literally millions of miles from home and falling to pieces.

To be more precise, he is stuck on Mars, presumed dead by his fellow crew members who had to evacuate in the middle of the mother of all sandstorms.

Think the Tom Hanks film Cast Away (2000), but on Mars. Then throw in some MacGyver tactics for survival. Make that a lot of MacGyvering because Watney has a lot of problems to solve with very few resources.

Fortuitously, his skill sets as a mechanical engineer and botanist are exactly what is required for him to survive on the red planet. So he sets about solving the issues one by one, beginning with restoring contact with Earth.

There is good reason why Hollywood snapped up the rights to this self-published bestseller, which was turned into a film with Matt Damon in 2015.

The plot is simple: Hero gets into trouble, hero gets out of trouble. But the narrative is a rollicking rollercoaster that turns mathematics, science and gardening into thrilling pursuits that will have you on the edge of your seat.

This is quite an achievement for topics that are snooze-inducing when force-fed to students in classes.

Maths and science become really exciting when written up as madcap plans to make water by adding oxygen to hydrogen and burning it. And gardening is equally engaging when the hero is trying to turn barren Mars land into fertile soil - with the addition of human excrement - so that he does not starve to death.

Watney is a snarky guy with a foul mouth - it has been proven that swearing is good for venting frustration and anger - but his dogged persistence and nerdy ingenuity is very endearing and you will be rooting for him from page one.

This snappy adventure teaches you things you never remembered from school and a few basics of growing potatoes on Mars. That is a winning formula for an escapist read.

Shelf Care is a twice-weekly column that recommends uplifting, comforting or escapist books to read while staying home during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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