Book review: The Martian

The Martian - Andy WeirIt’s hard for a book that comes so highly recommended to meet expectations, let alone surpass them. The Martian by Andy Weir is one such book. It lived up to its billing and more.

I added the book to my reading list after it appeared in the Amazon recommendation engine, but it was a review of the book by Brad Feld that piqued my interest. I’ve picked up a few other strong science fiction reads through Brad’s blog. and his favorable review encouraged me to move it ahead of other titles on my 2014 reading list.

This review is going to be a bit longer and more philosophical than most, so here’s the short summary. I thought the book was great and have added it to my Must Read list. I’d say it’s the second best book I’ve read this year behind Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore. And now for the reasons why I liked it.

As with most good books, the story premise is very straight-forward. NASA has started manned missions to explore Mars. During one of the missions, the crew is forced to evacuate and cut its mission short due to an intense dust storm that hits their encampment. During the evacuation, astronaut Mark Watney gets separated from the rest of the crew and is left for dead. Fortunately for Mark, he survives the separation. Unfortunately for Mark, he’s alone on Mars. The rest of the book is an exercise in creativity and perseverance as Watney does his best to survive the rugged Mars environment while waiting to be rescued.

Outside of the science in the book, which is amazingly detailed and believable regarding how we would conduct manned Mars missions, there are a lot of valuable lessons that I gathered from reading the book.

  1. Planning and preparation is everything
    It’s critically important to plan for contingencies on a mission. Weir consistently points out how the components and technology developed by NASA are over-engineered. However, this over engineering comes in handy given the creative ways Watney has to use them to survive. In other words, while the over engineering may not be necessary for a mission that goes smoothly, it is vitally important when things go sideways. Without proper preparation, planning and training, missions are doomed to fail. It’s the same lesson that can be applied to business projects, along with most of my home improvement projects.
  2. Identify issues, but focus on critical items first
    Watney always looks at the big picture, but then breaks it down to focus on the most critical items first. For example, while he knows food will be a problem, the most critical problem is making sure there is air to breathe. Without air, it doesn’t matter how much food he has. Therefore, he focuses on making sure his air source is stable before worrying about and making plans on how he is going to solve his food supply problem. The life lesson here is that it’s fine to identify all of the problems you may face in a project (or life situation), but make sure you focus on the highest priority, most critical problems first.
  3. Feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t solve problems
    Yes, Watney gets frustrated and annoyed at his situation, but he doesn’t dwell on it. He can’t change what has happened, and feeling sorry for himself won’t move things forward. The answer is to look ahead and work on solving your problem(s), not sulking about how you ended up where you are. That only makes the problem worse.
  4. Persistence and perseverance pays off
    Succeeding takes persistence, perseverance, and hard work. Just because you do these three things doesn’t mean you’ll succeed, but not doing them means that you will fail. Also, you shouldn’t quit just because one solution to a problem doesn’t work. Often times, it takes multiple attempts to find the solution that leads to success.
  5. Maintaining a positive attitude in the face of adversity is critically important
    For whatever reason, the power of positive thinking is vastly underrated. Key factors of achieving success is seeing yourself succeeding and believing you can do it. If your attitude is that what you’re trying isn’t possible and that you can’t do it, guess what? You’ll confirm that it’s not possible, and you’ll fail.
  6. Need to be willing to experiment with things outside your comfort zone
    There are times in life when we need to try things that are outside our comfort zone, area of expertise, or above our perceived skill level. There are also times when we have to be willing to push ourselves to determine the limit of our capabilities. Put another way, if you’re not occasionally failing at things life, then you’re not pushing yourself hard enough.

So yes, while the book may be a fictional tale, there are some hard life lessons that Weir has embedded in the story that apply to more than Watney’s survival story on Mars. They can be applied to projects and events in our everyday life.

The Martian is very well written with a great mix of hard science fiction with many, many humorous moments mixed in. If you are a left-brained engineering type like me, you’ll totally relate to Watney’s thought process, his approach to his predicament, and the technology (or lack thereof) he uses to solve the problems he faces. The book may be a tougher read if you are right-brained, but you’ll gain great insight into how an analytical, engineering minded person approaches and solves problems.

To summarize, I highly recommend it. You won’t be disappointed.