Science fiction is in the depths of a crisis. Like so many other institutions and traditions in the West, it has been hollowed out, co-opted, and turned into a parody of what it once was. We are told to believe that war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.
What was science fiction once (and what might we hope it will be again?). Eric S Raymond has said that the white hot center of science fiction is libertarianism. I tend to agree with him, but that’s not the totality of it. Without claiming to be exhaustive, at its height science fiction embodied a world view that was deeply American: problems lurked ahead, but they could be survived – and not just survived, but overcome – by rationality, morality, and a belief in hard work, individualism, and intelligence.
Heinlein, at the peak of his career, could not write a short story or a novel without driving these lessons home. The rightful inheritors of the universe were not just humans, but Americans (of whatever putative species, ethnicity, or nationality). They believed in freedom and goodness, used logic to approach their challenges, and fought like hell to overcome them.
The last few decades have seen a decline in the genre, as the good material has surrendered its space in the bookstores, and foot by foot, rack by rack, has been replaced by bi-curious tattooed lyncanthrope bike chicks, Victorian ladies in steampunk goggles (Victorian only in breeding and couture, sadly), endless Star Trek novelizations, and other varieties of crap.
(The last 30 years have not been entirely dark – we’ve been blessed with some of the best space opera ever from the pen of Ian Banks, stunning Weird Fantasy from China Mieville, amazing stuff in multiple genres from Neal Stephenson, and more…but bright spots aside, the hot white hot center, the default worldview of science fiction has dimmed and become less magical, more mundane, and – yes – simultaneously more tacky, more banal, and more despair inducing.)
I was thrilled to come across a new novel recently that broke from this downward trend. It’s not the perfect novel (but then again, what is?)
The novel starts with our protagonist, astronaut Mark Watney, trying to evacuate with the rest of his team from the surface of Mars as a dust storm approaches. The winds pick up faster than expected, and as the crew lopes for the safety of the ascent vehicle which will take them back to orbit the base antenna bends, snaps…and impales our hero. Body bruised and battered, space suit leaking, his team mates see him disappear and his vitals telemetry go dead, and they leave without him.
A few hours later Mark wakes up, the hole in his suit sealed around the antenna by flash frozen blood, his crewmates gone to orbit (and from there, back to Earth), and the only antenna that can help him communicate with Earth ripped to shreds.
If Mark were a millennial on Tumblr he’d probably compose a haiku about windstorm microgression and blame the patriarchy for leaving him alone to die on Mars. Mark is not, however, a millennial on Tumblr – he’s an American of a variety that would make Heinlein proud, and he decides that he’s going to survive. Somehow, despite a windstorm collapsed shelter, no communication with Earth, and almost no food supplies, Mark is going to live. He’s got to get shelter, a breathable atmosphere, food, and a way to cross the inhospitable Martian landscape to meet up with the next mission that will be landing a year later. The only tools are his indomitable will, his logical engineering approach, and the broken scrap of the devastated base.
Over the next 360 pages we get to watch Mark claw his way towards survival, confronting the inevitable logistical bottle necks, experimental successes, and engineering failures. Time and again Mark considers giving up, then reapplies himself to solves a problem, only to watch dumb luck, metal fatigue, or less than crisp decision making undercut him. As painful as the failures are to read about, the success make up for it.
Obviously, I recommend this novel, but it is not with out its shortcomings.
Prose (6/10): The book is decently written. It’s not literary, but it’s not meant to me. This is a book about the will to succeed in the middle of an engineering charlie foxtrot, and the writing gets the job done.
Plot (8/10): The plot is simple: Mark needs to survive, and to do that he needs food, water, oxygen, heat and transportation. Simple, but not simplistic.
Characters (3/10): If you want character driven literature, you know where to find it. There is no Malcolm Reynolds and Kaylee, no Mike the AI and Professor Bernardo de la Plaz here – just one middle aged, engineer stuck alone on Mars. Even for that, the characterization is a bit weak: Mark tells us from time to time that he’s on the edge of despair, but we never really feel it.
Ideas (7/10): A simple idea, but ruthlessly and perfectly executed.
Overall (8/10): “Procedurals” (a type of fiction that theoretically slices across genres, but are all too unfortunately correlated with either either tired police or medical dramas) are all too rare in science fiction. This one was a breath of fresh air.
The rover heater is designed to heat air at one atmosphere, and the thin Martian air severely hampers its ability to work. So the electronics might need more time to warm up.
Also Earth is only visible during the day. I (hopefully) fixed the lander yesterday evening. It’s morning now, so most of the intervening time has been night. No Earth.
Sojourner’s showing no signs of life, either. It’s been in the nice, warm environment of the Hab all night, with plenty of light on its sparking clean solar cells. Maybe it’s running an extended self-check, or staying still until it hears from the lander or something.
I’ll just have to put it out of my mind for now.