I suppose it was more than a little ironic that my rant the other day about apocalyptic pessimism and dead-end visions in science fiction and fantasy was itself rather pessimistic. That’s what happens when you’ve spent too many weeks brooding instead of writing. There are some brighter visions floating around out there. For example, there’s The Martian, Andy Weir’s tale of a marooned astronaut and the people who band together to help him return home.
I admire an author who writes thoroughly researched hard science fiction but remembers a good story must engage both the reader’s mind and heart. Check out this video in which Mr. Weir talks about a key scene where his story had to put the science on the shelf for a few moments in order to come fully to life. Just watch the whole thing—it’s 48 minutes long, but well worth your time. It was a bold risk to take with a fandom dominated by obsessive technical nitpickers, but he scratched their itch in so many other areas, they didn’t seem to mind. This is also one of those rare novels which holds up well in both its literary and cinematic incarnations. That is, most reviews I’ve seen are saying it does. I saw the movie a few weeks ago but haven’t read the book…yet.
Science is key to this story, and The Martian portrays some very strong notions about the nature of science. Science isn’t magic. Science is a tool of enormous power when employed by an agile mind, but it’s not necessarily an elegant precision instrument sculpted from stainless steel. Here, it’s more of a rude bone club for relentlessly pounding obstacles into submission. When Mark Watney assesses his dire situation and concludes he’ll have to “science the #$%& out of this,” I imagine John Henry swinging his hammer at a stubborn railroad spike with precisely the same intonation and intent.
After all is said and done, after the thrilling, miraculous rescue driven by indomitable stubbornness, loyalty, ingenuity, and love, after the mind-boggling expense and foolhardy gambles undertaken to bring one man back from certain death, what comes next?
“Boy, we sure lucked out this time. Best not try that again. Let’s go back to firing robots into the void. It’s a lot safer and cheaper, and besides, there’s nothing a human being can do out there that a machine can’t.”
No. The push to Mars expands and accelerates with another, bigger, manned mission. Meanwhile, we find Mark Watney in a NASA classroom, teaching the next generation of astronauts all the skills he learned the hard way.
That’s a vision with the power to inspire. It tells us that human beings keep exploring even if it’s difficult, risky, scary, expensive, or politically inconvenient. We crave ridiculously audacious expeditions into uncharted territory with no guarantee of success, and we won’t entertain the notion of failing to return home to our friends and loved ones. We aren’t content with robot proxies probing the universe for us. We go to see with our own eyes, and touch with our own hands, and we learn wondrous things we use to pound impossible obstacles into submission. Then we do it again, and again, and yet again. We don’t give up. That’s who we are. That’s how we’re made.
It sure beats shivering in our basements waiting for the zombies to find us.
One thought on “The Martian and the Power of a Positive Vision”
What a fortuitous (or should I say providential?) post: I just finished reading “The Martian” on Friday in preparation for seeing the movie with my family during the Christmas holiday. I found it a fun book (wish he could have contained his language a bit, since it’d be a great one for high schoolers otherwise).
I saw on Goodreads that some people had complained that Mark was a bit too plucky, or too qualified, or that things worked out too well. My experience in reading the book, though, was that every time I (and the characters) started to get complacent, something popped up that pushed that concern right back down. Mark’s original plan fails. He has several plans that fail, actually, and makes “careless errors” as my math teachers used to write on my papers. He doesn’t know everything or have all the answers.
However, he is an astronaut selected on a Mars team, and so presumably a bit better at maths and sciences than me (the casual reader). Also, the people at NASA are very, very smart. I found it refreshing that so many professionals acted, well, professionally. It played like what we saw in the movie “Apollo 13,” where the ground commander told his crew to “Work the problem and not make things work by guessing.”
If anything, having a random disaster wipe Mark out at the eleventh hour would have felt like a cheat for the sake of “drama.”
Actually, the most unrealistic aspect of the book for me was how the whole world remained focused on Mark’s plight for a year and a half. Sure, in the first few weeks, maybe even months, I could see daily CNN updates and reports, but after a while attention would fade. People would stop checking in. New disasters would crop up. The funding would become controversial. I guess I have more faith in qualified experts in their field than I do in the general public.