The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for being daunted by your to-do list

Read The Martian by Andy Weir, the story of someone for whom completing their to-do list is a matter of life and death

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The Independent Culture

Ailment: Daunted by your to-do list

Cure: The Martian by Andy Weir

Many of us regularly face days in which there are so many tasks on our to-do list that we're paralysed before we've even begun. If this sounds familiar, read The Martian by Andy Weir, the story of someone for whom completing their to-do list is a matter of life and death.

When a violent sandstorm hits the Nasa spaceship Ares 3 during a mission to Mars, the crew's botanist, Mark Watney, is buried in Martian dirt. His fellow astronauts leave him for dead – but he's not. Emerging into consciousness – and the grim realisation that there's no food, air, water, radio signal or hope of rescue for another four years – Watney's only chance is to put his formidable knowledge of plant and bacteria life to immediate use. Or, in the geeky astronaut's own words, “to science the sh*t out of this”.

What follows is Watney's indefatigable ticking off, item by item, of what is possibly literature's most daunting to-do list – beginning with stitching up a wound in his own stomach – as he attempts to turn the 31 days his “Hab” is designed to keep him alive for into 1,412. He must create soil to cover the floor of the Hab, turn flammable hydrazine into water, encourage earth-born bacteria to grow, and produce enough food for four years out of the 12 fresh potatoes thoughtfully provided by Nasa for the crew's Thanksgiving meal. Most people would just curl up and submit to an unpleasant death, but Watney greets each task with impressive enthusiasm, starting with the minor issues (where to dump his urine), before moving on to the bigger ones.

With occasional glimpses of an agonised Nasa watching from Earth, and the light relief of seeing Watney torment himself with the only entertainment available (70s TV) we root for the cowboy spaceman all the way. By the end of the book, our own list seems positively appealing.

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