Thinking About The Martian

The MartianWe saw The Martian this week and liked it a lot, though my sweetheart did note that it wasn’t as good as the book. Few movies are, of course, because there’s no way to incorporate everything that’s essential in a novel in a two-hour movie.

My sweetheart describes the book as “Apollo 13 written by Lemony Snicket.” That is, it goes from crisis to crisis – a series of unfortunate events. But the stranded astronaut and the people on Earth and on the Hermes spaceship take a scientific and engineering approach to solving the problems – something that is dear to his engineer’s heart. (When he bought the book at Borderlands, the clerk observed that engineers in particular loved it.)

I particularly liked the diversity of the cast – something that I understand is also true of the book – and the way the movie portrayed the way NASA handled the incident. There were both heroic acts (especially by engineers and scientists at JPL) and stupid bureaucratic decisions.

And I hope that the success of this movie and book – despite all the unfortunate events – will provide some incentive to reinvigorate the U.S. space program as well as other programs around the world. My sweetheart also recently read a 1981 book by Gerard O’Neill that predicted we’d have space colonies by now, and I’m disappointed that he was wrong. It bothers me that we have done so little when we got off to such a good start in the 1960s.

So I liked the movie and hope it will do some good in the world. But oh, how I wish Joanna Russ were still alive to review it!

I’m thinking about the Russ who wrote We Who Are About To, the one who was capable of questioning the relentless human optimism that says we can overcome all the risks and failures out there, and not just the ones in space.

We Who Are About To sets up an impossible-to-survive situation, of course. There are too few people to build a new civilization, regardless of how many babies the women might be forced to bear. And the reversion to sexist gender roles is at the heart of the story.

But it does also mock the “we must do everything to survive” ethic that is at the heart of The Martian. That’s a tricky issue, though I agree with her that such a philosophy needs to be questioned in many aspects of life.

In health care we now have advanced directives to avoid the tendency of doctors to try to do everything when someone is dying instead of letting them die in peace. California has now joined the jurisdictions that allow physician-assisted suicide for people with miserable terminal diseases.

I’m sure there are many other circumstances where giving up is better than continuing to struggle. I suspect that people living in flood-prone areas should move rather than rebuild. And while I’m all for smart scientists and engineers figuring out cool technical responses to climate change, we are also going to have to change how we live on this planet.

But Russ’s book made me uncomfortable, even though I would have refused to become a baby factory in that situation as well. Like the astronaut in The Martian, I want to take steps to fix things. I want to believe they can be fixed.

It’s hard for me to ever accept that things can’t be fixed, that there’s not a solution, that I can’t do something about the problem. I don’t believe in magic or miracles, and as I get older I’m learning to accept that immortality is not one of our choices in life, but I still hate the idea of giving up.

Which is why I wish Russ were here to critique the movie. I can’t do it for her. I’m too busy rooting for the astronaut and all those engineers. Fix the problem. Bring him home.

But don’t forget to question everything.


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