Mark Watney is a perpetual smart ass. His humor never fails to pierce the severity of his life or death situation and lighten the tone of the story. After being left behind by his crew during a bad storm on Mars, Mark has to figure out how to create water, grow food, and somehow communicate with NASA. The problems he faces are unrelenting, and as a reader I agreed with Mark that it seemed like the inhospitable planet was trying to kill him. Mars is definitely the antagonist of the story just due to its very nature. It becomes coldly clear that Mars is no friend to mankind, and this hits upon a reoccurring theme in the story that Earth is the hub of humanity and all of the things that make humanity worth saving is embodied by this lone man stranded on a planet far from home.
The story is told primarily through Mark's first person log entries. However, the narrative does float between Mark's perspective and a third person perspective of the NASA control center back on Earth where the discovery of Mark's survival is made. These sections focusing on NASA and their attempts to come up with a plan to rescue Mark are part of how the story builds tension. NASA knows things that Mark doesn't, and as the reader gets the privilege of this information before Mark it definitely makes for a thrilling scenario. The characters at NASA are less developed than the characters of Mark Watney and his crew. However, I understand Weir's decision to set up his narrative this way as it provides another view of just how difficult and bureaucratic it is to get things done on Earth while Mark plays Macgyver on Mars.
Mark is incredibly intelligent and realizes he's going to have to lean on some hard science skills to come up with a plan for getting rescued. When he's actually describing the details and calculations of some of these endeavors, the in-depth science can be dry and may make your eyes skim the stuff most readers won't know anything about, but Weir does a good job punctuating the science with Mark's unflappable perseverance and good nature.
There are so many things that go wrong and there are so many ways that Mark could die that the reader doesn't know for sure if he will make it through the story alive. Mark has to figure out how to grow food on a planet so cold that bacteria can't survive in the soil, make water, modify a rover for a trip to recover a probe sent to Mars in the 1990s, and countless other situations that arise. I was never sure how Mark was going to make it out of these situations, but he always finds a way. And ultimately that is a testament to what the story's thematic structure is about; the perseverance of the human spirit. Whether it's Mark's will to survive, NASA's attempts to construct a rescue, or the inhabitants of Earth obsessively following the story of the man on Mars - there is a humanity to every part of the story. For a story based around a man stranded on another planet, Earth becomes a pulsing beacon of hope.
I listened to this as an Audiobook and would totally recommend this as an entertaining and at times thrilling read with a likable main character with great comedic delivery. The Audiobook version really allowed me to hear the humor in Mark's voice and also experience his waves of frustration and exhaustion that may have been experienced differently had I read the book. If you're an Audiobook fan, this is definitely one to add to the list.
Also, you may have seen previews for the movie that will be coming out in 2015 starring Matt Damon. Once I found this out, not only could I only picture Matt Damon as Mark Watney while listening to the story, but the casting is absolutely on point. I cannot imagine anyone else pulling this character off without seeming disingenuous. Click here for the movie info.