Please note: I don't review to provide synopses, I review to share a purely visceral reaction to books and perhaps answer some of the questions I ask when I'm contemplating investing time and money into a book.
This is probably the definitive feel-good story for interplanetary botanists everywhere. I can see how this got the funding to get made into a movie; it's a straightforward story with plenty of precedent so audiences won't feel challenged. Make no mistake, this is first and foremost a feel good story cleverly wrapped up in a scifi flag. Our intrepid hero Mark Watney is a study in charisma and I admit I feel a bit of a bro-crush on the fella. I was drawn into his celebrations and disappointments as his strategy for survival unfolded through his log/diary. It's a credit to the author that he made the monotony of marooned survival as exciting as he did.
The pacing is done very well in the purely literary sense, but I feel it was too dramatically perfect to feel realistic. And this is where the book loses a star. The peaks of his successes and the valleys of his failures line up too well; disasters strike at the most opportune time to advance the plot and all of the emotional highs happen on right on cue as our resident Martian completes his Major Projects.
But as so many journals and accounts of marooned people have shown us through the ages, it's not the major accomplishments that define the person or determine the likelihood of survival. It's how the person deals with the day in, day out monotony of solitude and hard labor. It's the gradual physiological changes and the evolution of psychological coping strategies that, in recollection, mark the passage of time. Daily tasks take on enormous importance - but we never learn about the day to life of Mark. Mark himself never really changes; he just disassembles and reassembles some stuff and travels around Mars until finally the [ending I won't spoil]. This illustration of "good ol' immutable American exceptionalism" loses the book a second star.
I've seen some reviews that lambasted the science for being too accessible, and some reviews that feel the science is too obtuse. This shows me the author got it right. I don't think there's anything wrong with the science, but there were certainly some presents lobbed into Mark's court that were there just to fill in some logical holes. I would have liked to see more detail, especially around the chemistry. But my entire background is in science and I do engineering for a living. I had a lot of fun "playing along" and solving some of the problems; but if a proper engineer who thinks about putting people onto stellar bodies all day long were to write a book I'm sure I'd like that more than I liked this book.
It's a quick read and very accessible; this is book was not even fractionally as ambitious as Red Mars. And while KSR's Mars trilogy will forever be amongst my favorite books, this book just doesn't have the depth or breadth to make any lasting impact.