Very soon, in the never ending debate about whether or not info dumps can be compelling, someone will point out that Andy Weir made some 300 or more pages of info dumps nail-bitingly thrilling in The Martian. To which someone else will reply, 'Well yeah, but that's only because Mark Watney's life hung in the balance in every single scientific digression.' Which neatly sums up the appeal of the novel – the only thing harder than this book's science is surviving on Mars.
Mark Watney is the lowest ranked astronaut on the 3rd manned mission to Mars – he's no Buzz Aldrin or Yuri Gagarin. He's a sort of dorky engineer with a botany background a juvenile sense of humor and an upbeat can-do attitude that would make BYU's pep squad look like suicidal goths. He's not the guy who inspires schoolchildren or makes profound speeches. Through a combination of catastrophe and dumb luck, their mission is aborted and Mark is left for dead on the surface of Mars. The dumb luck is that he survives.
Cut off from all other humans in the solar system, his continued survival is a series of desperate attempts and terrifying gambles. It's not that Mark has to find fresh water on a desert island – it's that he has to make it. Without, y'know, blowing himself up. Weir has constructed a 21st century robinsonade out of Murphy's Law and the skin of Mark's teeth.
Mark has, at his disposal, gear for six for most of a month, some refrigerated potatoes, a lifetime supply of disco, and science. Lots and lots of science. Chemistry, math, computer programming, navigation, basic 'if a rover can travel 90 kilometers a day…' algebra, and "extreme botany" all play a role in Mark's extended Martian stay. Of course, someone driving around on Mars eventually captures NASA's attention. The book's view expands to include NASA and JPL workers doing their best to figure out how to save Mark. Or at least figure out what he's doing from satellite pictures. This provides more than the occasional moment of dramatic irony.
Though NASA's sending manned missions to Mars, the scenes back on Earth make it clear that this is a near-future book. Extremely near, if you believe that no-one at JPL has Google Glass or that people would still watch CNN on televisions. In bars. For the most part, keeping everything near future has the benefit of plausible tech and workable science. There aren't any magic wands or superpowered items that are going to save Mark at the last minute. Sure, I have quibbles with a few things (How insulating is the habitat tent's material? Why is it a single shell tent? Is there really enough carbon and nitrogen in the dirt he makes?), but those aren't even questions that you could ask about far future science fiction or space operas or other stories with high concentrations of handwavium.
Most of the book is in the form of Mark's audio logs. Mark's upbeat and humorous outlook keeps the book from ever feeling as dangerous or dark as the situation probably warrants. You get the feeling that, while this serves him – and the book – on Mars, it would make him remarkably annoying on, say, a family camping trip in those groggy pre-breakfast minutes. You also get the feeling that instead of hiking of fishing, Mark has spent his morning figuring out how to short sheet your bed with you in it. The thing keeps Mark from being some Mary Sue of MacGyverdom and Pollyanna saracasm mashup is his ability to cause himself as much grief as anything else ever does.
Mark isn't the only somewhat one note character. Everyone else we meet is pretty much exactly what you think they are. A lack of villains is refreshing and character depth really isn't this genre's strong suit. Mindy Park, the NASA SatCon engineer who figures out Mark is alive, is the only character who has any arc as her "space paparazzi" assignments give her more confidence. Unfortunately, she's also basically demoted one of the last times we see her. It would have been nice to know that women can look at photos in science without suffering the same fate as Rosalind Franklin.
While the book doesn't dwell on deep feelings or universal human truths, it is smart enough to know, and admit, that the cost of rescuing Mark is vast – in money, in man hours, in equipment and to individual lives and to scientific exploration. This isn't just a book where science saves the day, this is a book where science is the most important thing – something to be venerated, in between Mark's pirate jokes. And it's something that can be lost.
The Martian is a self-publishing success story, which has not just migrated to commercial publishing, it has also been optioned by Fox. (I would bet money there's a screenwriter out there somewhere trying to figure out how Mindy and Mark can end up dating, extremely long distance.) I hope it actually gets made, since this is the sort of story that will end up inspiring the next generation of explorers and engineers. Probably not botany though – Mark's actually pretty mean about other botanists. Which may be okay – I'm not sure the solar system can handle more than one extreme botanist.