Why “The Martian” will be a blockbuster hit (unfortunately)

After reading The Martian the other day, I gave it four of five stars at goodreads. I read the whole thing in about 24 hours, and can certainly recommend it; up until the very last page I probably would have rated it five out of five. It basically dropped one whole star in the final paragraphs.

Upon reflection, I’ve decided that my main complaints about the novel come down to sentimentality. My minor complaint involves a strain of fantasy in the story; by contrast the object of my major complaint (supercharged during the closing paragraphs) is probably all too realistic. It could make sense to complain about too much and too little realism at the same time, I suppose. But in this case, my objection isn’t really about extremes as much as it’s about an extreme (in my view) of sentiment.

It felt somewhat odd when I finally realized that this is the common theme to The Martian‘s flaws (as I perceive them). In many ways it’s very, very strange to apply the word “sentimental” to this story in any way. To be completely blunt, while I found it a page turner and while I’m not alone, I think the majority of The Martian feels remarkably like a space-exploration-themed series of sample engineering problems from a college textbook. It reminds me of Verne, particularly The Mysterious Island, except with the engineering content ratio much higher. The majority of the other content, meanwhile, documents meetings of NASA administrators.

Again, I found the result nonetheless gripping, and much credit to author Andy Weir. That said, the story he produced from these parts made me frustrated and even angry at points, and unlikely as it may be the reason is basically unchecked sentiment.

I’ll be blunt a second time, now, and just say that my biggest complaint about The Martian is how the whole thing is basically a fantastic, horrible illustration of the aphorism that “one life is a tragedy, a million lives is a statistic.”

Popular belief assigns this remark, or some variant, to Joseph Stalin. In fact this seems to be yet another one of those famous quotes that its source never said; Wikiquote may not be an authority but if it’s advising skepticism it seems like skepticism may indeed be warranted. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of truth in the quote and attribution, because

  1. If not Stalin’s own words, they seem nonetheless to capture perfectly the attitude of one of the most cynical, monstrous butchers in history, and
  2. Sadly, it’s also an attitude that often proves accurate, and the demonstration of that accuracy throughout The Martian seems as realistic as all of the physics, chemistry, biological and other technical detailing combined…

…which is nonetheless troubling because to me there’s just something a little offensive in a story that not only affirms the cynicism of Joseph Stalin but then celebrates how wonderful it is that humanity can be so disproportionately invested in a single life.

(I suppose I ought to warn about spoilers soon, so, I’m doing that now.)

To briefly summarize The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney is accidentally stranded on Mars, and initially believed dead; when the rest of humanity realizes he’s still alive and kicking, basically the entire human race proceeds to glue itself to 24/7 updates for months, while NASA and other agencies go into overdrive trying to rescue him. Eventually, they succeed.*

My two complaints about this involve 1) the response from Earth, and 2) its results.

The response from Earth is, I think, brutally accurate. While Weir doesn’t really make mention of social media, perhaps because in detail it’s so faddish and The Martian presumably takes place some years in the future, his portrait of Twitter-era culture is brilliant. In the story, CNN introduces a daily Mark Watney Show that quickly captures top ratings; if the medium of a cable news program feels a bit old school at this point, the raw sociological realism of this device more than makes up for it.

Humanity becomes obsessed with Mark Watney, and then demands that heaven and earth be moved to give the “show” a happy ending. Space agencies are unsurprisingly sympathetic to this demand, although the characters at NASA etc. evince considerable awareness of the arbitrariness and outright hypocrisy amid which they’re acting. For all this, I really credit Weir; I don’t necessarily like the realities depicted but neither do the characters or the narrative itself.

This changed, however, on that last page. Up until then I could say “well, this portrait of humanity is distasteful to me and I have one or two other small complaints, but overall this narrative is realistic and intelligent in painting that portrait; five stars.” Then I read the last page, and it was like getting to the bottom of a bag of chips and finding a dead mouse.

The book closes with Watney, who mostly makes it through his ordeal with engineering and humor, at last reflecting on all the resources diverted into rescuing him from starving to death on Mars. Multiple American space missions, one Chinese mission, uncountable NASA dollars and man-hours, not to mention all of the worldwide attention dedicated to Mark Watney for months… and he concludes “that’s humanity, isn’t it wonderful, when someone’s in trouble people come together to help.” Paraphrasing, but that’s the essential conclusion.

GAAAHHHHHHHHHH.

Roar of outrage aside, the substance of my criticism here is actually rather tricky, and requires a good deal of nuance to express properly. Ultimately, space exploration is expensive and diverts resources (frequently to large for-profit corporate contractors) from other priorities. NASA’s contemporary budget is actually tiny compared with the whole federal budget, to say nothing of the US economy, and even in a hypothetical era of manned missions to Mars, the relative amounts might not shift that much. That said, it’s still money that could be spent to improve many lives among the poor and marginalized.

But I’m not against spending money on space exploration. Even setting aside questions about stimulative effects and economic multipliers, and treating it as a diversion of limited resources, I think it’s a good value. Learning more about the universe around us is a valid priority in my mind, as is paving the way for a human civilization beyond the single-point-of-failure Earth (which would provide an argument for the manned missions that I have a tougher time seeing as good value, otherwise). I think we should spend on these things, and probably spend more than we do currently; I happen to think we should also direct more resources to the poor and marginalized and to preserving this planet, and direct fewer resources to a list of recipients I’ll be happy to enumerate… I really don’t know how to answer the whatabout of “choose between spending on space exploration or on social programs,” as I don’t think reality ever presents me with anything like such a direct set of options, and therefore the important details would have to be entirely conjectural…

In any event, I believe in spending money on space exploration, but the overlap between “furthering space exploration” and “save that guy on the CNN show!” is limited. There is overlap nonetheless; a couple of times during The Martian characters argue that, yes, all this is hella expensive but so is exploring Mars, and if you support exploring Mars then it’s not really so extravagant to help keep Mark Watney alive, because he’s accomplishing a crapton of Mars exploration. This is a pretty good argument, and had Weir left it there, I would have been a lot more content.

Instead, though, we got the roar-inducing myopia of “that’s humanity, isn’t it wonderful, when someone’s in trouble people come together to help.” Yeah, people come together to help, so long as the person in trouble has the right credentials to count among the elite who shape media narratives. Otherwise, when someone’s in trouble there’s a great chance that they’re going to get jack shit for help and no one will notice.

This goes toward my answer to “what would your alternative be?” In one sense, yes, the problem of Mark Watney is unavoidable in manned space exploration (which, as noted, I’m willing to support), and it seems a problem without good solutions. When we send people into space, it’s very possible they may encounter a technological failure that strands or otherwise endangers them, while we on Earth retain a perfectly functional ability to follow what’s happening to them, without any way to intervene that isn’t at best risky and extremely expensive. So it may seem that the only alternatives are to plow money into rescue efforts, or just watch them die and do nothing about it.

Except this is a false choice. This is the myopia of Watney/Weir. The ability to follow what happens to people does not automatically result in people watching or caring. Think about all the people here on Earth still in need of food or medicine. Think about the people “accidentally” murdered by US death drones that, correct me if I’m wrong, actually have cameras on them. Think about all the people whose lives are just miserable struggles of drudgery, whose sheer numbers seem to me like they ought to count for something even if they aren’t in imminent danger of starvation. Somehow, it seems that lots of people go about their lives without paying any attention to these fellow humans. So why must we assume that “watch the astronaut die” is the only alternative to “desperate international effort to help?”

Yes, thank you, I do recognize the realpolitik of the situation. As noted some time ago, I think that most of the worldwide response in The Martian is all too realistic, and while I don’t like what’s being depicted realistically, what really offended me was the active denial of its implications at the end. “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining,” sir.

Having done all this self-righteous bitching and moaning, I suppose that my second criticism is a bit anticlimactic, but what the Hell; I’ve come this far. It also supports my snarky title, here, which is otherwise a bit gratuitous I think.

The other thing that bugged me about The Martian was how, for all the social and (so far as I can tell) scientific realism, the story became increasingly a triumph of gung-ho Hell-with-the-risks maverick-ism. Again, spoilers: After an initial attempt to rocket food to Watney goes blooey, NASA gets a lifeline with the offer of a Chinese rocket that’s ready to go. But with time grown even shorter, the options are either a) try shooting food to Watney again, under conditions that seem unpromising at best, or b) shoot food to the rest of his crew that’s on their way back home, and have them slingshot around Earth back to Mars, then pick up Watney via means-to-be-worked-out-soon-we-hope.

The guy in charge rejects choice B, on the grounds that risking five more lives to save one is reckless. Through mutinous action on Earth and among the Earthbound crew, however, that choice is overruled and NASA is forced into pursuing plan B anyway. It then works (but see footnote below), through a series of increasingly dire improvisations, and ultimately it began feeling like Weir was giving too much scope to sentiment in another way. In this case, by “cheating.” It’s the author’s prerogative to choose what risks fail and what risks succeed, but I think he bent the rules rather much in the end. After a novel about the inevitability of things going wrong, it just felt a bit much for me to swallow an ending in which caution was stupid and wussy, explosions and bucking authority were awesome, and in a one-chance super-high-risk scenario where any problems had to be overcome instantly with no margin for error, all of them were.

It was, for all this, a fantastically entertaining novel. I did give it four stars out of five, and if I knocked one off due to philosophical offense, I don’t give out a lot of five-star ratings on goodreads anyway. Four means excellent.

Meanwhile, I have the feeling that these very features I identify as flaws will play central roles in a blockbuster Hollywood movie, which may also dumb down the novel’s many smart elements… I think a runaway hit is a very strong possibility.

I’ll be rolling my eyes and simulating gagging.

* Actually, the story ends with Watney newly reunited with a mutinous crew of questionable judgment, on a spacecraft that has already been stretched way beyond its intended use parameters, many months from Earth or any other source of aid. The fact that this is presented as “woo HOOOOOO we did it he’s saved MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” is probably a further illustration of my points.

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