Optimism, the Future, and Why I Loved The Martian


Most science fiction spends too much time on the fiction and not enough on the science. The reason I prefer Star Trek to Star Wars is because I would rather spend time with explorers than warriors. So you can imagine how much I loved The Martian. The movie, directed by Ridley Scott, stars Matt Damon as a botanist left behind on a manned mission to Mars.

The movie is based on a book, which is based on a blog. Northern California computer programmer Andy Weir wrote the story in segments, like a cliffhanger serial. “I’d just post a chapter whenever I wanted, get feedback, adjust it a little bit,” Weir told Authopreneur. “All of a sudden, I had an agent, a print deal, and a movie deal. I was like, ‘How did that happen?’”

Adjustments were made to the story, and, more importantly, to the science. NASA employees read Weir’s work and added their two cents. “It was like having thousands of fact-checkers, Weir told Smithsonian. “And I fixed things as they sent it in.” Insisting the details are important is the way to make an audience believe and care. I want to hear Scotty marveling at ion propulsion; I don’t want to see telekinetic strangulation.

I love when real life circles back on TV. The JPL engineer currently in charge of ion propulsion first heard about the technology on Star Trek. Science fiction filmed on Melrose has worked its way to a real spaceship in Pasadena. In the movie, JPL has a very hard-edged 21st century glass-and-steel headquarters; the reality is more of a relaxed college campus.

Los Angeles has been fascinated by air and space since its beginning. The first big air show in American history was held in Compton in 1910 and the space shuttle was largely constructed in Downey. One of the first science fiction clubs in the country still has a clubhouse in Burbank. Members Ray Bradbury, L. Ron Hubbard, Forrest J. Ackerman, and Ray Harryhausen used Clifton’s Cafeteria as their unofficial clubhouse to talk about rockets and ray guns.

The movie is simultaneously vast and claustrophobic with a livable environment limited mostly to a space suit and a tiny habitat unit. Watching Damon’s character “science the shit” out of his limited resources to stay alive made me think more about drought and recycling than any ad campaign ever could.

Two other movies, good action movies with lots of running and jumping, had the complete opposite ethic. Mad Max Fury Road and The Scorch Trials are both set in the future and involve characters on road trips, but the images of gluttonous squander are haunting. I still don’t understand the math of burning drums of fuel just to retrieve more fuel in Max. Who sends a fleet of voracious double-barreled, Hemi V-8, flaming guitar art cars to pick up gasoline? Who is refining that gasoline? Why don’t the thirsty townsfolk come up with a way to capture the torrent of water that is dumped on them every few days? Team up and build a rain barrel already! The film’s logic is distracting.

In The Scorch Trials, post-apocalyptic teens run through a desert landscape in search of a survivor’s camp. When they reach a shopping mall filled with water, batteries, and, presumably, racks of Wetzel’s Pretzels, they take nothing. In fact, one sullen boy simply tosses aside his metal canteen when it is empty.

In contrast, Damon’s character in The Martian creates his own biosphere out of garbage bags and duct tape. He breaks a sweat. He collaborates (spoiler alert: he contacts NASA) and innovates and gets things done, yet I gripped my armrest just as tightly as I did during Mad Max. I kept talking about The Martian days after I saw it. Next weekend is JPL’s open house. One of the fun ways they engage kids is by having them lie on the ground while a Mars rover rolls over them. Maybe that will inspire a young visitor to write about the red planet–or to visit it someday.