The Martian was a mistake!


Science Fiction fans should be really bothered by the fact that The Martian from the Andy Weir novel and film director Ridley Scott won the HUGO award this year. It also won The Dragon Award. Matt Damon gives a fine performance and some of the cinematography and special effects were top notch, but the film was not really about Mars as we know it. It also can usher in some collective forgetting. 

The film was in the tradition of survivalist or castaway stories, and the film does make an important point, ie. that Mars can be dangerous, but was minimal in scope and had inaccuracies.  The problem is not that Mark Whatney, played by Matt Damon, does not find life there, the problem is that he didn’t even really look for it in the movie or the book.  

In the novel Mars is also called a desolate wasteland, but the verdict is not in yet. Astrogeologists and Astrobiologists would love to venture there. It is one of the real remaining landbased wilderness, that term used in the strict sense, that remain for us. There are many who would take the risk to go there even if they were only likely to find geology there. The point made is  also not fair to the scientists who have studied the planet and know better.  

Some still like the fantastical stories about Mars, but most people know the difference and the argument against some of the hard science here might be considered insulting.  

This film is going to change the way people think about Mars, but not necessarily for the better of our future and the future of space exploration.   

Though framed as a realistic depiction about what we would face on Mars, in this case not the sometimes fantastical Red Planet now of yore, it does not acknowledge some of the things we know about Mars already.  

 The story also picks up at what would not be a happy ending for an exploratory trip to Mars. The story starts after astronaut Mark Whatney, who is likely now to become the most famous martian, is marooned on our closest neighbor in space. He has to figure out how to survive and wait for the original crew to take unpredicted actions in order to get him off the planet. This scenario captured the audiences attention as a gritty realistic tale about survival on Mars. It is a simplified scenario. 

I missed the early parts of the story where the crew would be excited about being on Mars, but that is where the books begins. Whatney says that these were going to be the best days of his life in the book, but instead the movie begins with a disaster. Missing is the part where the scientists and explorers are fascinated by the alien world. There would have been scenes of them exploring the planet and finding things. Scientists on Mars are more likely to find life there than the space probes we have been sending. They have more chances to improvise and follow leads.  It is possible that we would bring some of this life with us, ie. space faring microbes and human germs, but we should be able to determine between the contamination we bring and extraterrestrial life if these extraterrestrial beings are on the planet in mass. They could turn over rocks and travel longer distances to explore interesting places.  

NASA has found evidence of liquid on the planet which could be sampled. There is also ice at the poles. For real explorers, there would have been times that they would have been in awe of the vastness of this new planet. They also would have likely to have appreciated the beauty they had found. There would have been places with fascinating geological features they would have discovered. They as a group would have liked to watch the sunrise, sunset, and the starise and starset. They might have sent back photographs of the beautiful things they had seen. 

Oh how I, like many other, would love to take a walk through the rock gardens of Mars. People with bad legs would love it because of the low gravity. Even to non Astrogeologists the new world would be fascinating. I would have loved to be out alone in the rocky plains. One gets that special feeling of being alone in the wild or at a park. That epiphany is worth the trips to the outdoors and the time, even if there is bad weather, on Mars one might have the same experience if one is in a space suit. The suits might ruin such experiences, but then again they might not be so uncomfortable with modern technology. 

I would love to see what a Martian sunset looks like. Without much light pollution, the night skies would be wondrous there. I would love to be out there alone on those rocky planes under the stars. It would be great for human kind to be in more than one place. 

There is a little bit of this in movie, but mostly Mars is presented as a place Mark Whatney wants to escape from. In some sense Andy Weir's Mars is a prison. The gist of the book and movie, and the popularity it engendered remind why maybe we should not be going to the Mars soon. In Andy Weir's treatment Mars is that other Nature that we battle against. The book is a survival story about a person alone facing the elements.  

A close reading of the book shows that Weir writes of Mars as a frozen desolate "wasteland". Mark Whatney is a Botanist and Mechanical Engineer and seems to agree. A geologist would certainly disagree. A  Astrobiologist would have loved to have the chance to be there to turn rocks over. Strangely the book never has a character commenting on the search for life there. This is a third expedition and they might have not been successful finding life there, but strange, especially for a science fiction book, there is nobody verbalizing that the search for life took place. One gathers that life would have a hard time surviving on Mars, but as John Rummel, a former NASA Planetary Protection Specialist pointed out to me in a personal message at a meeting of The American Geophysical Union, we found extremophiles in the most unlikely of places. There could be something alive there which would be an amazing scientific discovery. There could be things with anti-freeze in their blood. There could be life deep under the surface. We don't know what we would find from such a discovery. There, however, are many people who would think about Mars differently than Andy Weir and Mark Whatney and would love to have been selected for this trip. There are many who would risk their life to go there.  One need remind that the trip would be dangerous, but there are brave folks who would take the risk to advance our space program and planetary exploration.

The movie, though upbeat at times, also made some errors. Some of the story points it makes ignores the fact that there are debates about Mars.  


Astronomers have found evidence that there was water on Mars and ice at it's poles. NASA scientists have pointed this out for more than ten years. This is not news to people who have been following the exploration of Mars that has been taking place with space probes. Some astronomers could possibly be wrong about this, but this is not a lie. It is also not a game that space explorers play putting out hopeful ideas that keep people thinking of Mars.  

If we go to Mars we might not need to bring as much water as we think. We may have to bring equipment that will purify it: Spectral Evidence for Hydrated Salts in Seasonal Brine ...    Spectral Evidence for Hydrated Salts in Seasonal Brine Flows on Mars L. Ojha (1) , M. B. Wilhelm (1), S.L. Murchie (2), A.S. McEwen (3), J.J. Wray (1), J. Hanl ey (4)


The truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction. There are microbes that have been said by The California Academy of Sciences in their Planetarium Shows at the Morrison Planetarium and others to have survived round trips back and forth from the moon on the surface of space ships. This is hard to believe, but it is believed to be true. We also carry so many microbes that what we find on Mars might be contaminated by astronauts. We might also bring something back that is dangerous to the Earth. Without limiting factors microbes could grow exponentially and change ecological relationships. Science fiction has it's share of stories about plagues from space for a reason. It would be great to take samples and explore what is likely to be martian clay at the rivers that have once existed on the planet. 

Astronomers have reminded that they still believe Mars once was wetter and might have had seas. 

Despite all the time that Mark Whatney spends on Mars, it is not a wonderland. Maybe this is more realistic to an extent, but more likely that we should have sent someone else. 

The film also simplifies. Like the film Gravity, The Martian does not really break new ground. They do bring these subjects before the public, again, but these movies could have been bigger and maybe more complicated. They could have been more aesthetic. They could have been more inclusive.  

There could have been more going on here than just survival stories. There is more to think about here and a fair bit glossed over and forgotten. These are the films that people will see and absorb, but they don't give the full picture. Space is dangerous, especially for those who are not prepared, but there is also wonder and beauty. There might also be extremophiles, even on Mars. John Rummel, a former Planetary Protection Officer for NASA, pointed out to me that we were not prepared to find extremophiles in some of the places we found them. 

The Martian, though limited by having to be a movie, will make an impression that is not completely true or accurate. It is not really an update. 

The Martian is also not terribly original. It did catch the interest of the public in a story about survival. It is more minimalist than brilliant for those who have been following the arguments. Though thrilling and well framed, it should not be considered enlightening. Maybe the stories of the earlier expeditions in Weir's timeline would have focused on the fun of exploration also rather than just danger and survival.  

The old books will also be forgotten with the new realistic books taking prevalence. It is surprising that Mark Whatney did not read any of them on Mars, but such intertextuality might pose legal problems. Mark Whatney now might be the most famous martian in the world now. The Martian is a slimmer tapestry than some of the books that have preceded. Sadly to be neglected are books like The Martian Chronicles (1950) which has emotional power that is hard to surpass. Some of the heartfelt stories are hard to forget. Sad also will be bygone days for books like Man Plus (1976) by Frederick Pohl and the sequel Mars Plus (1995) by Pohl and Thomas T. Thomas were cyborgs are constructed to survive the harsh conditions on Mars, but Mars has been found to be more dangerous since. There are many others that the reading public will forget with the prominence of this grim survivalist tale not set on The Red Planet. !

Not all might be sad that Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series did not make it to the big screen. It told the long story of the terraforming of Mars and could probably make a great ensemble television show. Robinson set the Terraforming project too soon though and was alarmist for those who wanted us to search for life on Mars before we alter the planet to the extent that indigenous life might not survive there. He tells a long complicate and personality driven story, but it should have been set a bit farther in the future. 

We would have to not respect the scientists, like some multinational companies do, for this scenario to take hold. Surprising that he gets a lot of the environmental honors for this despite envisioning a scenario we would alter Mars before the exploration is over. This is probably something the Astrobiologist and astronomers would not allow. Robinson does get some of us to care about the preservation of Mars in this way though. 

Terraforming, or the alteration of the planet, will take so long that most of us will not be around to see it's completion. It is  something to be ambivalent about. It will be a very difficult planet to change, but maybe we should leave it as it is so that it might teach us things.

Ben Bova’s recent Mars series, which began in 1992, has it’s defenders also and tells a more realistic and wholesome story.  

The Martian however will probably only be one installment. A similar tale was told in Mars Crossing (2000) by Geoffrey Landis, but his book was not as successful as Andrew Weir's hit novel and movie. Geoffrey Landis's novel is also a survivalist tale about getting off the planet. It is not that someone owns this storyline, but it is not clear if Weir provides much of an update to this. In Mars Crossing fossils are found, but the astronauts are
also trying to escape the planet and do not have a lot of time to study them. Both are also arguing about values, about how human life is sacred and Mars is dangerous and less interesting. In Mars Crossing though an astronaut decided to stay on Mars. 

International Space Law protects astronauts as it should, but Weir and Landis seem a bit dogmatic in arguing here that we have forgotten this. In these tales it also seems forgotten that we are going to these planets for science. Martian microbes or fossils might be the only life that we find in the solar system. What we discover about it might provide an amazing and enlightening lesson. 

Sadly The Martian by Andy Weir might be considered an update, it isn’t really, and the Millennials because of it we might lose track of some of the other fine books that have been written about the The Red Planet. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, though now definitely a fantasy, might be passed over for this more realistic story. One could argue that the Mars of old, the Mars of story, has moved out of the solar system to a place we cannot get to yet. Maybe they are out there somewhere? We are not likely to get there by 2019, the 50th Anniversary of the first moon walk. The Martian Chronicles tugs at our heart strings and has some of the most moving and cute stories one is likely to find in science fiction. It also sends an environmental message about what we have done to indigenous people and wild landscapes. Some of the things earth settlers do on The Red Planet are surprising and memorable. There was a reverie for Ray Bradbury and his Mars, but that Mars no longer exists within sight.    

White Mars, Or The Mind Set Free (1999) by science fiction historian and luminary Brain W. Aldiss and scientist Roger Penrose, capstoned the Millennium by arguing that Mars could be a Utopia. As it turns out Thomas More’s 1516 novel Utopia is celebrating it’s 500th anniversary this year. Mars could be a new world. We could create a new society there. Aldiss, however, does not write about Mars as a wilderness we need to survive. Gregory Benford in The Martian Race (1999) imagines extraterrestrials that are alien living in caves below the surface of Mars. Greg Bear in Moving Mars (1993) is a big book with big science fiction ideas, maybe too big for some. Bears characters do find fossils there. We still have not investigated below the surface of Mars yet.


Even though The Martian was noticed this movie award season, it is not necessarily an update to all of these. Though flawed, the book might tell a martian adventure story like it is likely to be now, ie. a grim survivalist tale. We can though better plan them. We also can better dream them. Mars would not be a nightmare for space explorers.  

It is great that the crew cares enough about each other that they will take precautions to protect each other. There are those who would take the risk for the experience and the fame. I think there would be many who would be willing to be permanent residents there if they could. In some science fiction scenarios the explorers decide to stay. International Space Law requires that we protect astronauts, and maybe such laws were needed.  

Have we really earned a new start on Mars? What do you think while watching the news? Are we really prepared for one? Are we ready for it with World War III in The Middle East and Europe on the news everyday?

We are more likely to care about the Earth if it is the only place we are. We are less likely to destroy it in a nuclear war if we do not have human DNA elsewhere. We are more likely to survive if we have human DNA elsewhere. The solar system is not going anywhere and The Red Planet of old that we dreamed about is still out of reach. So is Mars. Maybe settlers on Mars can change the Earth? Maybe not?