(Video on Demand, January 2016) It’s a good time to be a hard-Science Fiction fan. After decades of repeating that there were no hard-SF movies (save for maybe parts of 2001 and Contact), here are Gravity, Interstellar and now The Martian in successive years to prove us wrong. The Martian has the added benefit of being perhaps the warmest and the purest hard-SF of the three, blending a likable character with reams of effortless exposition about the technical details of being stuck alone on Mars, years away from any potential rescue. Much of the story plays like an endless series of problem-solving mini-dramas, which is closely aligned with the basic ethos of hard-SF. Matt Damon is very, very good in the title role, alone on-screen for a chunk of the story, separated from the rest of the cast. But director Ridley Scott is the one who excels here, delivering his most purely enjoyable film in a long while, making the most out of a terrific script by Drew Goddard that faithfully adapts Andy Weir’s page-turning novel. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain and Manuel Pena make great impressions in smaller roles, while the special effects work is dazzling. A note should be made of the film’s use of pop music, from cheap shots at disco (leading to an apt spot for “Staying Alive” during the end credits), to a spellbinding montage set to David Bowie’s Starman. Such touches help humanize a script that easily could have been far too dry (in the manner of so many hard-SF novels written by scientists) to attract popular acclaim. Fortunately, The Martian seems to have hit the right chords: It was a massive commercial and critical success, paving the way for similar movies. The drought of hard-SF on-screen may have lasted decades, but chances are that it’s down for good.
Crown, 2014, 384 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 978-0804139021
We all read fiction for our own purposes, and we should be careful in deriding others for what they like. It’s my pet theory that specific subgenres exist because they scratch personal itches that are as idiosyncratic as they can be, but can be shared widely. I’m an avid reader of so-called “engineering fiction” (stories in which increasingly complex problems are solved in quasi-procedural fashion, with plenty of details) because problem-solving is something I enjoy, and fictionalized scenarios of problem solving can be compelling in and of themselves, notwithstanding the most conventional aspects of fiction such as plotting, characterization or prose style. Engineering fiction does get a lot of flack because, improperly handled, it can read like a thinly disguised instruction manual. But when it works, it’s enthralling in a way that other kinds of fiction can’t achieve.
And that brings us to Andy Weir’s The Martian, a novel I’ve been waiting to read for a long time. I first became interested in the book when it started getting considerable attention as a self-published success, leading to it being snapped up by Crown. As much as I acknowledge Sturgeon’s Law as it applies to self-published fiction, I also believe that the traditional boundaries between traditional and DIY publishing are eroding, and that especially goes for specialized genre fiction. Weir’s The Martian, coming from nowhere but getting great reviews from my corner of the fiction world, seemed like a can’t-miss demonstration of what could become the new normal between self-publication and big-publisher validation. Alas, a big-screen adaptation started shooting before I could get to the novel, making it fall into my “don’t read the book before seeing the movie” eclipse zone. Cue the wait until the film was released on home video…
It took five days from The Martian’s video release to the time I watched the film. It barely took one more day after seeing the film until I finished the novel.
The film is one of those best-case scenario that acts as the novel’s best advertisement: One of Ridley Scott’s best movies in years, it’s a great movie by itself (that montage set to David Bowie’s Starman…) but also a remarkably faithful adaptation that follows the beats of the novel and does so in splendidly entertaining fashion despite very technical material.
My reasoning in waiting after the movie before reading the novel is that I’m usually disappointed when I go from novel to its movie adaptation in rapid succession: The movie usually simplifies the details that give life to the novel, condenses characters, hammers everything into the usual three-act structure and goes for speed and simplicity. Going from film to novel fixes images that can be used to read the novel more easily, expands on hastily summarized plot points, adds more complexity to character motivations and generally provide an expansion of the film. This is particularly apt for The Martian: There were a few plot holes in the film, and I quickly dove into the novel hoping that they were a case of excessive adaptation condensation issue. I was right: Weir has really thought of everything, and a number of the film’s nagging inconsistencies were usually resolved by a few lines in the novel. Otherwise, discussing the novel is a lot like discussing the film, so closely do they align in terms of tone, twists and turns, characters and overall impact. (I do like that the film adds a welcome coda showing what happened a while later—it helps a lot in ensuring an upbeat ending.)
But even after the blockbuster success of its movie adaptation, Andy Weir’s The Martian remains a successful novel on its own. It reads exceptionally well: Weir’s no-nonsense prose isn’t particularly polished, but it’s efficient. Much of the story is narrated by its smart and sarcastic stranded-astronaut protagonist, trying to lift his own spirits after being abandoned on Mars with months to go before any possible rescue. Much of the novel is a series of problem-solving exercises in ensuring his survival against impossible odds. Ensuring his safety from the elements, growing potatoes for food, establishing communications with Earth, planning his escape… Weir dives deep into the technical details of his protagonist’s plight, but never forgets to vulgarize it effectively. While the deck is stacked in favour of the protagonist with future technology that doesn’t exist now, it remains credible throughout and few readers won’t be convinced by the novel.
It also struck me as a particularly fine example of pure hard science fiction, both in execution and intent. From a stylistic standpoint, The Martian doesn’t aspire to greatness: the prose is flat and straightforward with few refinements, but it doesn’t need them. As in the purest traditional Science Fiction, the prose is meant to be a vehicle for the story, which is itself an excuse for the thrills that come from cheating the universe out of its indifference to human life. Hard-SF in the Campbellian tradition is very much about problem-solving as the survival box around the character gets smaller and smaller. The Martian faithfully follows this ethos to its triumphant conclusion and as such presents a terrific affirmation that this strain of traditional SF still has some life into it. It’s both modern (in tone) and classic (in plotting) at the same time, and the result is pure joy to read.
Naturally, I can’t promise the same reading experience to everyone. But The Martian plays into my sandbox of techno-scientific knowledge, pop-culture irreverence, straight-ahead plotting, unobtrusive style and can-do characters. Fiction is a big house, and we should all be able to find Our Thing in it—right now, The Martian is as close to a novel tailored for my tastes than I can think of.
[February 2016: On a more personal note, I’ll highlight that this is the first book review I’ve written in more than a year spent idling, so stoked was I to discuss this book. Thanks, Andy Weir!]