Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Martian: Book/Movie Review

You could make a distinction in science fiction between Engineers' SF (like Arthur C. Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise) and Big Ideas SF (like Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Stanley Kubrick's film version).  Engineers' SF focuses on how we might solve problems.  Big Ideas SF focuses on why we might solve problems, and are they really problems, anyway?  I've always been partial to Big Ideas SF myself.  I'm a philosopher. Go figure.  I have nothing against engineers.  I love the stuff they make!  But we also need people to come up with the Big Ideas.  It's basic division of labor.

Both the book and the film version of The Martian are definitely Engineers' SF, but I enjoyed them nonetheless.  I read the book (see my Goodreads review) about a week before seeing the movie with the idea that I might compare them here as well as offer some of my reflections.

Book vs. Movie

The movie more-or-less faithfully follows the plot of the book: astronaut Mark Watney is accidentally stranded on Mars and struggles to survive until he can be rescued.  This article by Mike Reyes gets most of the major differences, but I'd sum it up like this:

  • The film lacks most of the book's swearing, much of its intricate detail, some of the jokes, and a couple of Watney's near-death experiences.
  • Ridley Scott's film gives us hauntingly beautiful Martian landscapes (see below) set to Harry Gregson-Williams's score and makes it easier to keep track of the non-Watney characters by giving them faces in addition to names.

Engineering the Plot

In reading the book, I admit I skimmed some of the engineering details, which were occasionally just too much.  The movie has toned that down.  See Mika McKinnon's "Science of The Martian" for a detailed treatment of the scientific accuracy of the film.  There's still plenty of detail for the average non-NASA employee.  In the movie Watney claims he's going to "science the shit" out of this.  And he does.

We get it.  Mark Watney is smarter than all of us.

The Humor of It All

He's also funnier.  I especially liked the humor, which helps Watney survive.  The book had more jokes, but the movie kept enough to give us a sense of Watney's character.  I was glad they kept the bit about being a pirate, although I missed Watney's coining of a new technical term: pirate ninja.

All of this reminds us that humor is not a mere luxury, but a necessity (see my post, "The Doof Warrior and the Value of Subtle Humor" for more on the vital place of humor in human life).  Would Watney have survived without his sense of humor?  Does he teach us all to lighten up a little bit for our own good?

One random thing before I get to the philosophical bits: given that this takes place in the future (2035 in the movie), pop culture seems to be roughly the same.  Why not more imagination there?  Is everyone in the future just totally retro?  People barely listen to disco in 2015!

The Philosophy Report

As Engineers' SF, there's not much in the way of Big Ideas in The Martian.  That's just not the kind of story this is.  And that's fine.  They don't all have to be 2001 or Interstellar (which I loved as an example of philosophical SF no matter its occasional gaffes).

Still, there's oddly very little reflection in The Martian on issues like...  Should Watney be saved given the risk and expense of doing so? (How might utilitarians, deontologists, virtue theorists, etc. answer this?)  Why are we going to Mars in the first place?  What does all this mean for humanity? Do we owe anything to Mars itself?  (This issue comes up in Kim Stanley Robinson's amazing Mars Trilogy, which I'd argue is simultaneously Engineers' and Big Ideas SF)

One of those beautiful Martian landscapes
There is some interesting discussion in the last two pages of the book, but almost nothing in the movie.  Maybe this was Ridley Scott holding back to let the audience think for themselves, maybe he wanted to focus on the survival story, or maybe the producers thought they'd make more money without all that pesky deep thought cluttering up their shallow Hollywood blockbuster.

I do want to discus more, but to do so I regret to inform you that it will require spoilers.  So.... SPOILER ALERT!

Okay, don't say I didn't warn you.  Here it goes... spoilers, ahoy!  Watney is reunited with his crew mates.  I won't say exactly how -- I don't want to spoil that much!  In the book, that's the end.  The movie goes on to show us what everyone gets up to back on Earth, which is, I suppose, more satisfying in terms of character arcs but I think it seriously missed a chance for extending the philosophical arc.

The book ends with Watney's own reflections on why it was important to save him, which goes beyond his frequently stated desire to not die.  He says,
Part of it might be what I represent: progress, science, and the interplanetary future we've dreamed of for centuries.  But really, they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out.  It might not seem that way sometimes, but it's true.  (The Martian, p. 368-369)
Now this is some interesting stuff!  Maybe not quite Big Ideas stuff on its own, but it would give some food for thought for anyone wanting to write a Big Ideas version of The Martian.  Is it worthwhile to save one person if doing so represents something bigger?  Why is science valuable? What counts as "progress"?  Do we, as a species, need big goals like space travel and interplanetary colonization, as some characters in Octavia Butler's Earthseed series propose?  Is Watney a follower of the ancient Chinese philosopher, Mencius, who thought that all humans possess a tendency toward compassion that we ought to cultivate properly?

Now that the fans of Engineers' SF have done their jobs, maybe a proper division of labor requires that fans of Big Ideas SF do theirs!


  1. A great review from Xeno Swarm that contrasts The Martian and Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora:

  2. Very good review,
    .....from an engineer sci-fy fan's perspective, you got it covered.

  3. This is my first time i visit here and I found so many interesting stuff in your blog especially it's discussion, thank you.
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    1. Thank you for visiting and for the comment!

  4. Ironically, parts of the plot I have already seen in this German book, dated 2000: . There as well, there are six astronauts on Mars, they lose their main antenna dish in the same manner - they have even landed in the same region on Mars! Only that in this case, all six of them are stuck in different places away from their base.

    I don't think that Weir has known this story, it having been published in English only after Weir had already finished his. But they have both evidently drawn on the same study of a manned Mars mission, which is very clearly Zubrin's.

    1. Thanks for your comment. That's really interesting. I suppose a lot of authors are reading the same studies for their research.