The Science Fiction in The Martian

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 5, 2015

Most folks call The Martian science fiction, even when most of the articles I read about the book and movie praise its science. After I thought about it, I find it very difficult to find anything science fictional about The Martian. When does fiction mutate into science fiction? Science fiction has always been notoriously hard to define. Does rocketships and a Mars setting automatically make The Martian science fiction? Is being set slightly in the future make it science fiction? In terms of publishing categories and movie marketing labeling, it’s pretty natural to call The Martian science fiction, but I’m wondering if that’s old habit or lazy convenience.

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Don’t get me wrong, I love super hard science fiction that doesn’t stray far from scientific laws. But from the vantage point of when I grew up back in the 1950s and 1960s, our lives in the 2010s are already science fictional. So it’s hard to discern everyday far out from imaginative far out. The Martian would definitely be science fiction if it was written back when Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were telling stories about going to Mars hoping to inspire humanity to really go. Isn’t Andy Weir and his work a child of science fiction, but not necessarily science fiction? Aren’t we too close to going to Mars for stories about going to Mars to be called science fiction?

One reviewer said The Martian should just be called fiction. Even if we haven’t gone to Mars yet, it doesn’t mean a story about going to Mars is science fiction. Science fiction speculates about the possibilities of what science might discover, and The Martian uses science that engineers routinely apply now to existing space missions. About the only fantastic speculation I can see The Martian is the belief that the United States will spend trillions of dollars on a Mars mission sometime in the near future. The only area where I see Ridley Scott pushing believability is the scale of his Mars rockets, rovers, habitats and equipment. It’s been a while since I read the book, so I don’t remember if Andy Weir imagined everything so big.

Science fiction is about a sense of wonder that pushes the limits of knowledge. Sure it’s often unbelievable and even ultimately unscientific, and although science fiction is fantastic like fantasy fiction, science fiction is something we want to believe is possible even though it’s probably not. The Martian is far out, and has tremendous sense of wonder, but isn’t it too mundane to be science fiction? Isn’t it really just fiction? We could do everything in The Martian if Uncle Sam would write NASA a big enough check. And I say again, that’s about the only thing I think is science fictional in The Martian.

I’m wondering if there are qualities to science fiction that we don’t understand. That it’s too easy to call anything about the future, or anything that takes place in outer space as science fiction. Maybe we don’t know what to point to when we’re looking for the essence of science fiction. For 99.9% of people, science fiction is the perfect label for The Martian. The book and movie are wonderful, inspiring and filled with a powerful sense of wonder. I think they make people feel like they used to when they were kids reading science fiction for the first time. However, I think there is something more to science fiction. Something elusive that we can’t easily pin down. Something that we long for when we’re old, and wish we could find it again. I’m not sure that’s in The Martian. I believe it has too much science for that ineffable quality.

Nor do I mean any criticism of The Martian by thinking about not calling it science fiction. It’s a standout story and movie. I was just wondering when times get so close to science fictional if we need to reserve the label for stories a little more into the twilight zone.

JWH

6 thoughts on “The Science Fiction in The Martian”

  1. I agree that SF is hard to define, so frequently I have to go with my gut feelings. And, my gut feelings tell me this is SF, as a trip to Mars is being talked about but it’s at least a decade or more in the future. Unfortunately, at my age, I doubt if I will be around to see it. It’s SF.

  2. Oh, come on: is it futuristic? Check. Is it fictional? Check. Is it a little too near to our present for you to call SF? Check. But that’s NOT necessarily true for the rest of us. So let us call it SF, and you do what you like. Because, at the end of the Martian day, it’s the willing suspension of disbelief that matters.

  3. This is MARS we are talking about–not the Antarctic or the Gobi Desert or the Sonoran Desert—MARS! It’s been how many years since we left the moon and not returned?

    MARS! Doesn’t that stir your soul? Walking around on another planet?

    It stirs my soul, so much so I think I will dust off Robinson’s _RGB Mars_ for another reread! And then reread his short story collection about Mars afterwards.

  4. Maybe I´m being conservative, but, a Sci-Fi genre talks about our fears about the future, it´s not only a cuestion of technological components, or if it´s possible or not.
    I tell you more: the tech is not neccesary at all to fear the future.

    1. Good point. I just read a short story that’s labelled science fiction, but was really about fear of the future. It was essentially a dystopian story, and many dystopian tales don’t involve science. Instead of calling them dystopian science fiction we should call them dystopian fiction.

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