The Martian: A Love Letter To Science

October 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

On the first day of class, when we were discussing if any of us had any experience with science fiction before, I naïvely said that I had read a ‘science fiction’ novel, Never Let Me Go, over the summer. The moment I said it, Professor Clayton let out an audible (and disapproving) gasp, and said that Never Let Me Go isn’t science fiction at all. Making a fundamental error like that on the first day of class will definitely not end up on my top 10 moments of the semester (yikes), but it provided me with the opportunity to introspect a little, and investigate what science fiction truly means.

There are so many different definitions and sub-genres of science fiction, but the true hard science fiction, prized by the veritable science fiction nerds/geeks (what’s the correct terminology again?) places an emphasis of the plausible scientific premise of the story. Hard core sci-fi leaves very little room for character development, and as one of the bloggers mentioned, it’s hard to even remember the names of characters in these stories because the fictitious extrapolations of science take center stage instead. In classic science fiction stories (think Nightfall, The Nine Billion Names of God), whose contributions to the science fiction genre have been validated by numerous Hugos and Nebulas, I find that human characters exist only to get the story going. We need scientists or ordinary people to discover something or react to an event, but all that’s just fluff, and not really pivotal to the story. The protagonist of a hard science fiction story isn’t a dashing Kirk or even the genius Spock (I do bring them up on every post, don’t I?), but the scientific concept and its ramifications on society.

Of course, there are many other sub genres of science fiction that do not follow this formula, and do make an effort to move beyond an excessive focus on the scientific premise. Gregory Benford’s Timescape, while giving us various concrete scientific explanations (some of which went way over my head…tachyons, collapsing wave functions and other esoteric scientific concepts), does delve into human relationships and sentimentality. Ok, now I’m going off on a tangent. What I really want to talk about is The Martian.

(Yes, I know it’s been a long time since we’ve discussed the film, but I’ve been patiently waiting since fall break to post this!)

Before I took this class, I treated sci-fi movies as other movies, just with aliens and starships. I wasn’t looking for scientific accuracy, and the last thing I had on my mind was to make a distinction between hard and soft science fiction. I was more concerned about how ‘cool’ the movie was, not about its treatment of science fiction tropes and conventions. But when I went to see The Martian, I had clear expectations of myself as an active and aware consumer of science fiction, and I came up with a few, (and hopefully Roger Ebert-worthy) questions such as:

  • Is this movie hard or soft science fiction?
  • How far does it stray from classic science fiction works, especially in terms of the focus on the scientific premise and character development?
  • Who’s the hero- Hollywood heartthrob, Matt Damon, or science?
  • Is the science fiction/speculative fiction plausible?

And boy, was I surprised. As the film’s screenwriter, Drew Goddard said, “it is a love letter to science”.

A little bit of background first. The makers of this film actually partnered with NASA to maintain the scientific accuracy of the film as much as possible. Granted, The Martian is not the first film to rely on scientific experts, but actually being directly involved with an organization that is mentioned in nearly every frame of the film leads to fascinating results. Yes, you can argue that Andy Weir made it easier for Ridley Scott because the author was insistent on the scientific realism of his work, a philosophy reflected in the book, but presenting The Martian visually adds a challenging dimension to preserving scientific accuracy. To accomplish this mission, a perfectionist Scott reached out to James Green, Director of NASA’s Planetary Sciences division, and over the course of several months, a team of NASA scientists provided valuable input to the film’s crew about key technologies such as ascent vehicles, rovers, and habitats. Inching closer to actual science than science fiction, The Martian depicts real technologies NASA employs, such as radioisotope thermoelectric generators, ion propulsion, the famous rover, water recovery, oxygen generation, plant farms, and habitats.

The Martian is a science fiction film, but it’s set in a familiar time and space. The film seems so realistic that some poor souls actually thought that The Martian was a true story, and that humans had been to Mars. If you wonder why NASA went through all this trouble to help a commercial Hollywood venture, it’s because they want to make the film’s fiction a reality. Dr Charles Elachi, Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said that the film presents “a fairly reasonable representation of what is to come.” It is not far-fetched to think of NASA following Adam Smith’s philosophy of self-interest. The Martian makes NASA’s missions look cool, and much more important, compelling (refer to the BuzzFeed article), and if a sci-fi film can generate curiosity and interest in an organization threatened with dwindling budgets, what’s the harm?

Take this Ridley Scott interview for example:

Interviewer: Do you hope a film like this can make the nation more excited about the process of space travel?

 Scott: Of course. I was in Washington the night before last at National Geographic, where we shared the evening with NASA. There were lots of astronauts there and the whole senior staff of NASA were there. They both did very good presentations prior to the screening justifying why they do this and why it’s important to do this. It’s certainly a good story. If I had the spare cash I’d invest in it.

However, The Martian is not just a science lesson or preview of things to come: it is a big budget Hollywood film. Although Scott endeavors to and succeeds in maintaining the scientific accuracy of the film subject to creative licenses, he doesn’t bore his audience, and instead gives us a gripping tale of human perseverance, and adventure in an unfamiliar land. Yes, science does take center stage, but if Scott hadn’t shown Watney’s vulnerable moments and a natural sense of despondency, I don’t think I would have enjoyed the film as much. Maybe I’m a sticker for emotional stories, but by bringing in a human dimension to the science fiction narrative, and by adroitly developing Watney’s character, Scott triumphs in elevating The Martian from a simple sci-fi flick to one of the most engaging films I have seen in recent times. I haven’t read the book so I can’t comment on Weir’s narrative, but Scott challenges the tropes of the hard science fiction genre by conflating scientific accuracy with character development, especially in the most pivotal moments of the film. The power of Watney’s personality in engaging the audience cannot be overstated. We sympathize with him, explore Mars with him, and above all, root for him. He’s not a mad scientist, but just a human being trying to survive in a hostile environment.

Watney’s humor and wit, qualities I find lacking in even the best science fiction works I have read so far, make me like him so much more. Neil deGrasse Tyson and I seem to agree on many issues, including our favorite line of the movie, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”

Coming back to my original questions:

  • Is this movie hard or soft science fiction?

Ans: It’s hard science fiction, but with its emphasis on Watney’s character development, it has elements of soft science fiction as well.

  • How far does it stray from classic science fiction works, especially in terms of the focus on the scientific premise and character development?

Ans: Not very far in terms of emphasis on science, but because Watney is such a memorable character, it violates hard science fiction tropes in that regard.

  • Who’s the hero- Hollywood heartthrob, Matt Damon, or science?

Both, and that’s commendable.

  • Is the science fiction/speculative fiction plausible?

More than plausible! NASA is working on making manned-missions to Mars a reality. Read this:

-dreamer2205/Aditi Thakur

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