Sunday, February 28, 2016

Movie Review: The Martian

Hard Science Fiction

By Chuck Smythe

Once upon a time, there was Hard Science Fiction. It has deep roots, but the modern, genre paperback tradition started with the Greatest Generation. They came back from the war with heads full of The Bomb, computers, and rockets, and were an eager market for pulp science fiction. Quite a bit of this, of course, was formula adventure fiction tarted up with spaceships. Some of the most interesting examples, though, had scientifically literate authors, who were interested in exploring the possibilities, for better or worse, of all this new technology. This was Hard Science Fiction, and the best of it insisted on getting the science right.
    The Martian (2015, directed by Ridley Scott) is possibly the best film I’ve ever seen in the Hard genre. It is based on a novel by Andy Weir, a techie who moved from software to writing. I understand he talked to NASA engineers a lot about this book. As well as I understand the current thinking at NASA: If and when we mount an expedition to Mars, this is roughly how it will be done. The spacecraft, the Habitat (base), and the truck in The Martian all look as if they had been cut and pasted from a NASA mission proposal. Mars itself was acted by the Wadi Rum in Jordan, not a bad choice.
    All this would probably have been excuse enough to make the film. Seeing what a possible future history would look like is a worthwhile exercise, and a lot of fun. Inspiring, too....I’ve heard of at least one science teacher who challenged his students to actually grow food with stuff they might find in a spaceship. However, “I’ve got to science the shit out of this” is a wince-worthy line.
    The down side of Hard SF is that it tends to be all about ideas, and the people are essentially props. The literati have long sneered at science fiction for this. To them I say “Jorge Luis Borges.” However, it doesn’t have to be that way. I can think of many SF examples whose humans are even more interesting than their technology. How does this film do in that department? Better than most of its competitors. It certainly isn’t Lear, but our hero (Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon) at last shows mortal terror as he launches from Mars with a desperately inadequate ship. The captain of the departed ship (Melissa Lewis, played by Jessica Chastain) is haunted by leaving him behind, even though it’s clear she had no choice. A NASA bureaucrat (Mitch Henderson, played by Sean Bean) disobeyed orders in order to give the crew the choice of a rescue, and his pain as he was consequently fired from a career he obviously loved is made real.
    Again, none of this is Literature in the usual sense, but at least the characters are far from props. Oddly, the relatively stoic behavior of the astronauts is entirely realistic. I’ve known a number of them. They are professionals, able keep their cool under the shadow of death, planning not panicking. The actors actually portrayed this sort of character very well – even if Our Hero did cuss like a mule skinner on official radio.
    So how hard is the science? Well, there are a few things. The MacGuffin is a windstorm that threatens to topple the ship, requiring a hasty departure. Watching this, I thought, Isn’t wind pressure proportional to air density? Yep. Surface pressure on Mars is about 5% that of Earth at sea level. Windstorms Mars certainly has, but the force of the wind wouldn’t inconvenience you. Oh, well, the screenplay needed a rationale for the hasty departure from Mars.
    They walk around as if they were on Earth. Mars’s gravity is a little over one third of Earth’s, so they’d actually bound around like Apollo astronauts. Obviously, showing this would have been extravagantly difficult and expensive. And, of course, there are at least two problems they finessed entirely. Long-term weightlessness is bad for your health. We’re talking here about most of a year each way. And such a long voyage is bound to be hit by more than one Solar storm – with enough radiation to kill you. It isn’t clear how a spaceship could carry enough radiation shielding to take care of this – too heavy. (This isn’t a problem in low Earth orbit because the Earth’s magnetic field turns the radiation away.) As far as I know, NASA doesn’t know how it’s going to deal with these two either.
    Speaking of radiation, you might question astronaut Watney’s use of the discarded radioisotope thermoelectric generator that he digs out and repurposes as a heater for the interior of his truck. Isn’t its plutonium going to harm him? I don’t think so. The danger with plutonium is breathing it. It’s a chemical poison, and the particles can lodge in your body, irradiating it. However, RTG generators are already a long-tested technology. They’ve been used in most spacecraft to the outer planets (where sunlight is too weak for power.) They’re designed to stand a rocket crash without leaking plutonium, so getting cozy with one is probably reasonably safe.
    As one of the Children of Heinlein, I thank the film makers.

Copyright © 2016 by Chuck Smythe


  1. I was going to watch the Academy Awards show this evening, to see first-hand whether The Martian won any Oscars, but the pre-show banter about such things as, What advice do you have for first-time nominees? was so silly, I couldn't take any more. I'm going to do a Sudoku and then go to bed.

  2. Well, apparently no Oscars at all, not even the Wadi Rum for best locale. Doesn't matter – still the best Hard Science Fiction movie I've ever seen!

    1. They ran it as a comedy! Apparently there was no more appropriate category. No wonder it didn't win anything.

    2. As a what?! How stupid is that? And Spielberg was a producer?