The Martian (Book and Film Review)
As a six-year-old primary school pupil in 1970 I remember the strange assembly where the headmaster led us all, as a school, in praying for the lives of three astronauts in peril in space. They were of course the Apollo 13 astronauts. A few decades later I watched a documentary on that impossible triumph of ingenuity and tenacity over the utmost adversity. The bald facts were moving in a way that only simple truths can be, none more so than when Gene Kranz, the taciturn mission controller, broke down in tears reliving the moment when they realised the astronauts were safely home.
Andy Weir takes that template of the ultimate “man against the environment” story and expands it into an even greater drama. In so doing, the book and the film fired up some resonant thoughts for me about the tale and its contemporary relevancies. But then, what is the value of art if it cannot make you think about life?
Weir strands his protagonist, Mark Watney, on the barren surface of Mars. Halfway through a thirty-day mission, a dust storm causes the six-person crew to abort, and Watney is accidentally left for dead, without the means to escape or communicate with Earth.
Throughout what follows, Weir writes with wit and verve, so much so that I read the entire book within the space of 24 hours. Besides the wry humour of his protagonist, Weir displays a profound respect for science and for the ways of NASA that educates the reader and enriches the story. Even the mission titles (Watney is abandoned on mission Ares 3, one of a sequence of five planned Ares missions) form a credible tribute by the NASA’s other mythos-inspired manned missions. Ares, geddit? Greek God of War, the Greek name for Rome’s Mars and a suitable successor to Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury.
Weir paints an utterly compelling picture of the measures Watney takes to survive and the processes that NASA pursues to try and rescue him. It feels as real as that Apollo 13 documentary, where a team of scientists on earth worked on a Heath Robinson apparatus to scrub poisonous carbon dioxide from the lunar module/life-raft using only apparatus that the astronauts would have to hand. Watney relies on dozens of credible innovations to extend his food supply and his life support systems, and ultimately make a 3200 km journey across a hazardous desert for a last chance of rescue.
But it is that respect for science that strikes me as so unusual in our current times. I generally read fantasy fiction, full of magic and monsters. But Weir roots his story in hard science – including the facts of past missions to Mars that Watney scavenges for resources. The reality of humans’ missions to Mars so far – the robot landings of Pathfinder, Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity – are truly miracles of engineering. Yet in our post-truth world, the expertise of scientists like those who can land a probe with pinpoint precision on an orbiting speck of dust tens of millions of miles from Earth is held in scorn.
Scientists with equal skill and knowledge have spoken of the dangers of climate change and the benefits of vaccination, yet the media give an equal voice to wilful ignorance and we are all the poorer for it. So Weir’s cheer for science is timely and welcome. Watney’s video recordings of his experiences are infinitely more entertaining than Captain Kirk’s log – immeasurably more informed than Bridget Jones diary, not least of which is when he reflects on his predicament and concludes “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.” Would that there was as much respect on our Earth as on Weir’s Mars, for people who can science the shit out of things.
There is a poignancy to the timing with which I read this book, since it was about the time that NASA announced the Opportunity rover was presumed deceased and social media exploded in mournful salutes to a six-wheeled robot. I too felt a certain sadness. In the book, if not the film, Watney is threatened by a dust storm of exactly the type that ultimately overwhelmed Opportunity Rover, and Watney at one point contemplates a diversion to scavenge resources from Opportunity, which Weir correctly anticipated would have come to the end of its operational life by the time the book is set. NASA did anthropomorphise Opportunity’s last signal – what must surely have been a simple digital signal about battery status and light/solar cell levels – into a more mournful “My battery is low and it’s getting dark.” While one has to give credit to the engineers for overbuilding a probe so much that a 90-day mission actually ran for 15 years, one has to remember it was a robot, not a person.
But the fictional Watney, like the real Apollo 13 astronauts, is definitely a person, and it is no surprise that the entire world gets caught up in his adventure. Back in 1970, Apollo 13 consumed us for a few days. Watney’s extended sojourn on Mars lasts a matter of years, with an equally long journey home. His story becomes soap opera, every TV tuned to the Watney report in a way that is reminiscent of The Truman Show, where Jim Carey’s eponymous character became the pulse of an entire world.
That utter absorption, that global co-operation of teams upon teams all working to save one man while millions watch, certainly rings true. But it also prompts a question – on what scale are we capable of experiencing compassion? Be it the Chilean miners, the Malaysian footballers, it seems people need a small focus to fire the attention of their empathy. Tell us that a quarter of a million people died in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and the numbers are too large to comprehend (like the size of a billionaire’s fortune, or the diameter of the galaxy, or the age of the universe).
Good writers understand this reality – the incomprehensibility of scale. No matter how big the battle, or how much of the world is at stake, they give us a small cast in whom the reader can invest. Weir certainly whittles down our focus onto a single man trapped in more inhospitable circumstances even than Tom Hanks in Castaway. But it is alarming how much we seem to need to see individuals before we can appreciate their humanity, how readily populists and demogogues can dehumanise swathes of human beings with broad labels of discrimination. A lesson we seem incapable of learning from history, that every crowd is made of equally precious individuals. We are all Mark Watney.
Both film and book manage the imbalance in the Earth and Martian storylines very effectively. The Earth-bound cast of thousands are represented by a few key markers demonstrating their small but vital roles in the rescue team. The Martian soliloquy is delivered by Watney to a variety of cameras – with a conversational informality that ranges in presentation from Gardner’s Question Time to a Top Gear commentary from within the latest supercar.
Amongst the Earthbound cast is Sean Bean playing the Gene Krantz role of mission controller with the usual Bean-esque northern grittiness. There is also the socially inept but mathematically inspired genius whose lateral thinking offers the rescue mission an entirely new direction. This alternative is presented at a top secret gathering of NASA’s highest and mightiest in a meeting christened Elrond, in a tribute to the half-elf’s critical council in The Fellowship of the Ring. When this nomenclature is explained to the very grounded female public relations director, she exclaims that the rest of them clearly didn’t get laid enough in high school – or words to that effect. I have to claim my own geek credentials for being unreasonably amused at seeing Sean Bean in another cinematic Council of Elrond and fully expecting him to say, “One does not simply walk into Mars orbit.”
The story carries well through both film and book. The film necessarily makes some cuts, as Matt Damon’s Watney faces fewer Martian hazards, but the main perils still remain to provide the spine of the story. The film still tops out at 2 hours and 20 minutes, yet without feeling a moment too long. The medium of film allows some motifs to be conveyed in different ways: the side romance element foreshadowed by a look and a touch; the explanation of the desperate plan C delivered in planetary role play by the genius geek, with the baffled aid of the two most senior people in NASA. The film also makes some other small changes; for example, in sacrificing the integrity of Weir’s adherence to astronauts following their mission specialisms in favour of a supposedly more satisfying personal arc where guilt can give way to redemption. However, both manage a resounding crescendo as story and protagonist accelerate faster than any who have gone before, closing down on a tiny window of opportunity for rescue.
Another difference is in their epilogues. The film shows manned exploration continuing and Watney reflecting for a new generation of astronauts that shit is going to happen and the risk of death must be faced down. In the book, Watney’s final words are about the vast international team that sacrificed so much – not just in time and money but in lost opportunities – so that one man could be rescued. And that brings me back to my thoughts on the limits of empathy and the purpose of science.
The Martian is an excellent tale but it proves, amongst other things, that we do not need manned missions to Mars with their huge cost and risk. The quality of our robots here and in outer space is increasing exponentially. The challenges that science and humanity face are all more terrestrial. The fiction of The Martian, and the real science on which it draws, should be the signal (Flint’s fingernails dragged down the chalk board in “Jaws”, if you will) that enables science to say to the world, “Listen to us, we know of what we speak.”