If NASA ever launches a manned mission to Mars, space-watchers worldwide will scan the skies anxiously, imagining all the things that could go wrong for travelers more than 30 million miles from home. But no one is likely to imagine it as vividly as Andy Weir has in his debut novel, an interplanetary adventure story about an astronaut facing the ultimate worst-case scenario. When a freak dust storm forces the crew of USA’s third Ares mission to evacuate, Mark Watney is knocked unconscious in the chaos and presumed dead. When he wakes up, he’s alone.

Andy Weir's debut is the perfect blend of science and adventure.

Luckily, Watney is an engineer and botanist, two unglamorous skills that offer him a slim chance of survival—if he can make his meager rations last until a years-distant possible rescue. Watney sets to work solving a series of dilemmas: how to grow potatoes on a planet with no air or soil; how to turn rocket fuel into water without blowing himself up; and how to stay sane with nothing except his former crewmate’s abandoned cache of disco and bad sitcoms for company. And he devises a risky plan to make contact with Earth.

The solutions Watney finds may be fictional, but they’re grounded in scientific fact (Weir is a software engineer and astrophysics buff). And this 21st-century Robinson Crusoe is appealingly pragmatic and funny. Commenting on his sometimes tedious Martian daily schedule, he quips, “my life has become a desperate struggle for survival . . . with occasional titration.” In Weir's hands, even the driest scientific topics take on a taut urgency because the stakes are so high.

The book builds to an edge-of-your-seat finale (Hollywood has already bought the film rights). But what makes it memorable is its insistence that a 90 million-square-mile barren wasteland is no match for a roll of duct tape and some ingenuity.

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