Let's say you're an astronaut on Mars and you're suddenly swept away by a dust storm and your crew turns tail for Earth. Is all lost? Not if you thought to pack a copy of The Martian by software engineer Andy Weir. It's an impressively geeky debut novel, and it could easily double as a survival guide. Our hero is Mark Watney. He's a botanist and mechanical engineer, and Weir tells his story largely through the astronaut's fantastically detailed work logs. Here, for instance, is Watney describing the challenge of coaxing water from fuel: ''Liberating hydrogen from hydrazine is...well...it's how rockets work. It's really, really hot. And dangerous. If I do it in an oxygen atmosphere, the hot and newly liberated hydrogen will explode. There'll be a lot of H2O at the end, but I'll be too dead to appreciate it.''
Watney solves the H2O conundrum and many others as he awaits rescue, rigging up everything from a hot bath to a sextant to a ''mini-torch'' from a wooden cross (''I figure if there's a God, He won't mind, considering the situation I'm in''). Cheery even after inevitable mishaps, Watney represents an overused archetype: the brave, resourceful male American optimist. But the IT-bro humor makes him relatable. We all know a smart-alecky nerd just like him, so it's not a stretch to believe he could grow potatoes using Earth dirt, Mars powder, and his own urine.
Weir, who originally published The Martian himself, stumbles with his secondary characters: The men and women we see in action on the ship and at NASA are brainy but dour. Still, the technical details keep the story relentlessly precise and the suspense ramped up especially if you're more turned on by science than fiction. And really, how can anyone not root for a regular dude to prove the U-S-A still has the Right Stuff? B