The novel begins with American astronaut Mark Watney trapped on the surface of Mars, without the crew of the Ares 3. It’s the sixth day (Sol 6) of their mission on the Red Planet, to which they’ve been traveling together for years. The first two Ares missions have been successful, and the US space program is highly advanced. The Ares missions, for example, use a booster called Hermes to carry astronauts from Earth to Mars; Hermes is powered by “ion engines,” a futuristic technology providing thrust with minimal energy use. Ares astronauts then use a “Mars descent vehicle” (MDV) and “Mars ascent vehicle” (MAV) to travel between Mars itself and the orbiting Hermes, still in space.
On Sol 6, Watney awakes to find that the MAV, and all the Ares crew, are no longer on the planet with him. He remembers there was a sandstorm, and the crew left without him. But Watney doesn’t blame the crew for doing so; they thought, with reason, that he was dead. During the sandstorm, a shard of antenna flew backward and hit Watney, poking a hole in his suit. The rest of the crew, reading on their computers that Watney’s vital signs were zeroed out, assumed he was dead. They gathered into the MAV and blasted off into space. When Watney comes to, the storm has died down, his suit has resealed around the antenna-shard, and he’s able to drag himself back into the Hab, the surface station (like a high-tech tent) in which the astronauts live.
Watney takes stock of what he has with him, and begins an audio-video journal, which records his first-person account of Martian events. He notes that the possible biggest impediments to his survival, at this point, are lack of food and water, or a rupture in the Hab itself, which provides him with oxygen and protects him from the Martian atmosphere. Watney does an EVA (a walk in a spacesuit) to survey the damage to the site. He calculates that the materials provided by the Ares program can last him around 300 days, even though the mission was originally designed for about a month on the planet; some supplies are redundant, and he’s only one man, instead of a crew of six. He still has several back-up spacesuits from the other astronauts, two rovers (Mars cars) for driving on the surface of the planet, a partially-functional MDV, and a fully-functional Hab, including oxygenator, water reclaimer, and solar panels for energy. He doesn’t have any means of communicating with Earth (yet), since the satellites were knocked out during the sandstorm. But he does have enough food rations to last him almost a year.
There are problems, however: he realizes that, to be rescued, he’ll need to make it to the landing area for Ares 4, set to come to Mars in four years, to an area called Schiaparelli crater. Watney figures he can find a way, eventually, to travel thousands of miles to the crater from his current site (a plain called Acidalia Planitia), if he wants to be saved. Watney reveals that he was trained as a botanist and a mechanical engineer, both of which prove extremely helpful to his survival on Mars. Because he only has enough prepared food rations for just under a year, Watney calculates he’ll have to make his own food to survive long enough to meet up with the Ares 4 mission. Fortunately, Ares 3 has brought along potato plants, and Watney comes up with a plan for cultivating these potatoes within the Hab. Martian soil doesn’t have the fertilizers, moisture, and nutrients Watney knows potatoes require, but he’s able to jury-rig a solution. He uses his own feces, along with those of the crew, stored in the Hab’s toilets, to make fertilizer. He mixes this with Martian soil, and manages to water enough of it, using the Hab’s water-reclaimer, to lay out a plot of potatoes inside.
The only catch, however, as Watney discovers, is that he won’t have enough water to ensure the plants grow quickly and large enough to supply essential nutrients. Watney has calculated to the calorie how much energy he’ll need to survive for years on Mars, and the potatoes will only work if he can grow enough of them and maintain their health with ample water. He devises a scheme, using his chemistry knowledge, for creating water, by generating it as part of an explosive chemical reaction, using oxygen and some of the other chemicals already aboard the Hab. But he understands that, should he miscalculate anything in his production of water using this method, he risks detonating the Hab, ruining his plants and possibly risking his life. To pass the time when he’s not working, Watney digs into the crew’s data files of TV and music. But he discovers, to his horror, that they’ve brought along only shows and songs from the ‘70s, including disco—Watney’s least favorite genre.
The Martian alludes, throughout, in its structure and narrative to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, a seventeenth-century English novel. In Robinson Crusoe, the title character finds himself stranded on a deserted island for many years, and must develop solutions for survival, and to maintain his happiness and sanity while separated from other humans. Robinson Crusoe is a seminal text in the development of the English-language novel, and its plot outline—a man apart from society, tasked with rebuilding “civilized” life—has been repeated again and again in the Western literary tradition. The Martian, for its part, puts a new spin on the Crusoe narrative. Of course, for one thing, The Martian finds Watney on Mars, another planet, and not merely on a far-off island of Earth. And whereas Robinson Crusoe eventually includes a “helpmeet” for the title character, named Friday, Watney has no chance of finding intelligent, human life on Mars.
In fact, The Martian insists on the strictest of “realistic,” current scientific accuracy in its story. That is, the novel is an example of “hard” or “realist” science fiction, in which empirical science, and not magic or fantasy, are used to solve problems as they arise. Although the novel speculates on some of the problems and technologies Watney might face in space, it attempts to solve these problems using science as it is understood at the beginning of the 21st century. Much, but not all, of the novel is told from the first-person perspective, via video/audio logs from the Hab. These logs allow Watney to convey his ideas and experiences directly to the audience. But the novel also employs other points of view, in the third person. When events occur in Houston, at the NASA headquarters, they are narrated from an omniscient narrator’s perspective (that is, the narrator is unnamed and is not a character implicated in the novel’s action). And, on a couple of occasions, events on Mars are also narrated using this detached, third-person perspective, especially when actions are particularly dangerous, or require a “slow-motion” description with a high level of detail.
Disco music, and the television and musical culture of the 1970s more generally, becomes a recurring motif in the text. Commander Lewis and her husband are, as is reported later in the novel, big fans of 1970s culture, and most of the entertainment material on the Hab’s hard drive comes from Cmdr. Lewis. Watney claims not to like the stuff at all, although, over the course of the novel, he becomes more and more emotionally invested in it. This is, in part, because Watney has extremely limited human companionship on Mars, primarily in the form of laggy communication with Earth, via email messaging or Morse code. 1970s TV and music represents a tether back to life on Earth. It also hearkens to a time that, in the novel’s universe, came long before Watney’s birth, but roughly coincides with the young life of the novel’s author. Thus the motif of 70s TV and music signals the emotional pull of Earth, human society, and the world to which Watney hopes, one day, to return.