Dec 292015
Still from the movie "The Martian" showing Mark Watney on the surface.

Stranded Mark Watney facing the desolate expanse of Mars in “The Martian.” Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

NPR broadcast a report Dec. 13 on the recent rise in “hard” science fiction stories, taking special note of the book and film The Martian “that taps into an intriguing trend toward realism.”

It’s a trend that many readers and viewers of science fiction have noticed since Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy in the 1990s, and so it’s with some relief to hear Robinson’s voice in the report as one of the key sources for the broadcast. The Martian may be a signal that Hollywood finally took notice of the appetite for stories set in a scientifically plausible future, but it was really Robinson’s stories that helped lead the trend in literature.

In some ways, author Andy Weir may have tried too hard in his novel to be scientifically accurate. The only exception was the roundly dissed opening-scene sandstorm that supposedly left his lead character, Mark Watney, marooned on Mars. The winds of Mars can reach high velocities and create planet-wide sandstorms, but even Weir openly admits the thin atmosphere can’t muster enough mass to knock over a human. There’s no way the Martian winds can wreak such havoc to force a crew to abort its mission and launch without Watney on the assumption he was dead. Weir just couldn’t think of any other disaster that would be so immediate and devastating.

Ok, so the opening was hokum. I knew that going in, so I was ready to read past that. But the rest of the novel, as someone commented on the NPR site, reads like a “procedural.” That risks making an SF story too hard, with the author not paying enough attention to the human element, or that of any sentient being. Essentially, Weir wrote a clever puzzle story, with Watney solving the setbacks to survival he ran into along the way with a series of apparently scientifically accurate solutions. (I didn’t double check his math.) Any insight into Watney’s emotional state of being was limited to exclamations of “I’m fucked” to realizations of “Maybe I’m not fucked.” The smart-ass characterization of the disco-hating castaway helped temper the novel’s technical storytelling, but the movie version gave a more rounded picture of the people involved, on Mars, on Earth, and among the crew that left Watney behind.

I enjoyed the movie. It was funnier than the book. Matt Damon has a better sense of timing. Even the Golden Globes nominated The Martian in the Best Comedy category. Maybe it’s a good thing that a hard SF film doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Yet I hope this doesn’t mean we’re going to get a spate of SF procedurals with smart-ass protagonists who sub short quips for human insight. Whatever real or plausible science is employed in an SF work, the story should still be about people. Compare The Martian with Apollo 13, the latter being not science fiction but technically a historical work based on James Lovell’s book Lost Moon. But like The Martian, the movie about the ill-fated flight of Apollo 13 is a puzzle story on how to bring back the three astronauts alive after an explosion rocks their ship. The earlier story has the same revelation of how engineers carve a big problem into a series of smaller parts of the main, each solution extending the life of the crew until they can finally reach Earth.

Yet Apollo 13 is also very much about the people involved, and not just the three astronauts who are facing the reality of impending death. We also get insight into the work of the people in Mission Control in Houston. They’re the ones – the engineers, fellow astronauts and others on the ground – who have to come up with ways to keep the crew alive long enough so they can solve the next problem, then the next. We don’t see the math so much as we do the pressure, sweat and fears of people facing a challenge they never thought they would have to face.

The Martian, on the other hand, is pretty much in your face with its hard science. It’s a good book, and a good flick, but it’s not the last word on hard science fiction.


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