When I Was A Martian

A popular new book out now is The Martian by Andy Weir, his first novel, about an astronaut Mark Watney stranded on Mars after his fellow crewmen think he’s dead and they have to leave quickly to save their own lives.  Watney is part of the Ares 3 mission, and his story is very much like last year’s film, Gravity, where a solo astronaut must use his scientific wits to stay alive for hundreds of days in an environment that relentlessly keeps trying to kill him.  Watney is like a modern day Robinson Crusoe.  The Martian is a bit of a publishing sensation because it started out as a free ebook at the author’s web site, later became a 99 cent Kindle ebook, then a New York Times bestseller published by Crown, and finally is being promised to be made into a major motion picture.  The story is as good as the book’s success.

I raced through The Martian because it was a riveting read despite the fact that it’s very technical.  If you’ve ever dreamed of being an astronaut on a mission to Mars, then this book is for you.

The Martian

Watney thinks of himself as a Martian, because he’s the only living being on Mars.  When I was a kid I used to pretend I was a Martian.  Back in the 1950s, flying saucers were a big thing with the nutty folk, and when I heard that some flying saucer conspiracy crazies thought the U.S. Air Force kept secrets about UFO’s at Wright-Patterson AFB, where I was born in 1951, I imagined that I was secretly a Martian raised by my human parents who didn’t know their real kid had been swapped by Air Force brass.  If was a fun fantasy to explain why I was so different from my mother, father and sister.

I don’t know when I first heard about Mars, but it seems like it’s always been something I knew about, like dinosaurs.  I’m sure Mars was programmed in my brain before I could even talk, by Saturday morning cartoons and Saturday afternoon science fiction movies.  By the late 1950s when I started reading books for fun, I immediately searched out books on Mars, both fiction and nonfiction.  Before the summer of 1965 I had read enough books on Mars to have endless fantasies about ancient dead cities and the exotic aliens that had built the canals.

Red-Planet

I had read many books about Mars, but the one that really hooked me on science fiction was Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein, the first Heinlein book I ever read, back in 1964.  I was twelve when I read that book, the legendary Golden Age of Science Fiction.  By the time I turned 13 that same year, on November 25th, I had read every Heinlein book I could find.

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It was a crushing blow by mid-July 1965 when the Mariner 4 spacecraft flew by Mars and took a handful of grainy black and white photos that invalidated all my science fictional dreams.  Mars was as dead as the Moon, and the beautiful canals were replaced by goddamn craters.  Heinlein’s speculative fiction about Mars was now just fantasy novels like the Oz books.  No more old ones, no more Willis, and no more Barsoom.

stranger-in-a-strange-land

By high school, and the Moon landing in July of 1969, I knew Mars was cold and inhospitable, but for some strange reason I still wanted to go there.  I still wanted to be a Martian.  I was so excited by Viking 1 and 2 landing on Mars in 1976, that I continued to dream that I might get to Mars someway, even though I was much too old to believe such bullshit.  Over the years NASA landed many spacecraft on Mars, each filling out the real details of the planet that so mesmerized me as a child.   Mars is very well explored.  It’s not a very nice place for humans.  It’s very cold, with plenty of radiation, and no real air to breathe.

Caseformars

After the Apollo program in the 1970s I just assumed NASA would land men and women on Mars in my lifetime.  Boy was I wrong.  In 1996 Robert Zubrin came out with The Case for Mars that made a whole lot of sense about how to get to Mars.  His ideas are the basis of the Ares missions in The Martian.  I thought for sure such a brilliant, logical plan would lead to real missions.  But nothing has ever come of Zubrin’s dreams either.  The Mars Society is ever hopeful, but I don’t believe manned missions to Mars will happen before I die.

I no longer want to be a Martian.  That’s my main criticism of Andy Weir’s book—even though it’s a very realistic book, it never describes how harsh the Martian environment is, and how unpleasant it would be to try to live there.  Weir doesn’t convey the brutal cold or the relentless radiation, or the insidious regolith.  Only a mad geologist could love Mars.  The real Mars has no romance.  It’s definitely not an exotic destination of fictional adventure.  It’s a dead world, a world of rocks and more rocks.

I even wonder why astronauts would want to go there, or why thousands would sign up to be one-way colonists.

That’s the trouble with the romance of space travel, and the dreams of science fiction.  Every place were we could land that’s not Earth is just rocks.  Rocks and radiation, and freeze-in-an instant cold, or melt-the-flesh hot.  I guess I’ve just gotten old.  Old guys don’t like cold.

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I used to be a Martian.  I used to be a Martian when we knew nothing about Mars.  The older I get the more I realized that Earth is the only place that humans can live.  And dang if we aren’t hell bent on turning Earth into Venus.

JWH – 6/10/14

Can a New Science Fiction Inspire a New Space Program?

Many people firmly believe that science fiction was the original inspiration for sending men into space and going to the Moon.  I don’t know if that could ever be proven, but there’s a certain logic in thinking dreams come even before the horse or the cart.

The space program has lost its way.  The Shuttles are being mothballed, and we’ve never left LEO for four decades now.  If we’re honest, we’ll admit it was the cold war politics that got us to spend billions on NASA, and  I’m afraid real science has made space a far less appealing destination than the fanciful vistas of old pulp fiction.  Robotic probes have toured the solar system and we have a very realistic view of off Earth real estate, and the sites are far from the exotic locales described by our cherished space opera.

Yet, I have to ask:  Can a new kind of realistic science fiction, incorporating the latest scientific knowledge about space, make the final frontier sexy again?  I remember talking many years ago with a young woman about space exploration.  She said unless we had spaceships like the Enterprise in Star Trek: The  Next Generation then it wasn’t worth traveling in space.  I have a feeling most people think that too. 

I told her it was unlikely we’d ever have spaceships like NCC-1701-D and she acted like I had told her there was no Santa Claus.  She had assumed such luxury space travel would be available soon, or at least well within her lifetime.  Her attitude was, if we can’t travel in comfort, why go into space at all.

And there’s the rub.  The final frontier will be rougher than any frontier a pioneer has experienced in the history of our species.  Science fiction originally sold space exploration as an colorful adventure vacation.  Now we know it’s going to be more like years of reconstructive surgery and physical rehabilitation with little hope of full recovery.

There are only two destinations for people in our solar system: the Moon and Mars.  Forget the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn, they are much too cold and those systems have tremendous radiation levels.  The Moon and Mars are far from habitable, but with determination we might colonize them.  But we can’t oversell those two worlds like Kim Stanley Robinson did in his Red, Green, Blue Mars series.  That trilogy was among the best “realistic” science fiction in recent decades, but it had way too much fantasy for the kind of science fiction I’m suggesting here.

Can a new generation of science fiction writers envision practical human life on the Moon and Mars in such a way as to sell the idea to the tax paying public?  So far a majority of the public refuse to believe in evolution, so I find it hard to imagine such scientific science fiction selling, but it’s still a possibility.

JWH – 6/21/11