Surviving the Odds

It seems to me that the universe we know is so much bigger than we could have ever expected. It's easy to say it's massive...or even magnanimous...but these are just words. Is there even a word in our English language that can do the expanse of our universe justice?

The answer, I think, is no. 

And it will always be no.

Why? Because the human brain is not meant to fathom the exactness of unobservable things. We are meant to dream about them. To wonder. We hypothesize about beginnings, the Big Bang theory, Apocalypse times, but the exactness of all of that? Posh. We may as well be looking into the bottom of a cereal box for the answer to the meaning of life. 

Let's take a light year, for example. Let's talk about how incomprehensible something as rudimentary as a light year actually is. The speed of light travels at 299,792,458 meters per second. Not miles per hour...but meters per second

So if I said Mars is well under 1 light year away, you'd probably say, "Hmm...okay. That doesn't seem too far way. I can work with that." Other things like the Cygnus X-1 (the nearest black hole) is roughly 6,000 light years away.

Woof. Thank God for that.

 This is a BIG black hole.

This is a BIG black hole.

But the truth is, even at its closest orbital rotation, Mars still resides 34,647,420 miles from Earth. So even if we could travel at the standard speed of a commercial Boeing 747 (~600 miles per hour) with unlimited fuel, it would take roughly 57,745.7 hours of space travel time...or 2,406 days...or 6.7 years. Let me remind you that the closest orbital rotation only occurs every 60,000 years or so. 

Now before you start thinking that 6.7 years isn't that far away, consider how much food, water, fuel, and general human necessities it would take just to get there. For example, the average human being needs roughly 2 quarts of water per day. That's 730 quarts of water per year...for one person. 6.7 years on a spaceship for a water-drinking human means 4,891 quarts. And that's just drinking water. What about showers? Other hygiene? I'm guessing that it wouldn't just be 1 person leading a charge to Mars, either. If it's like the movie The Martian, you'd have 6 overall shipmates.

That means a grand total of 29.346 quarts of water...for those of you who like gallons...that's 7,336.5 gallons. That's only for the trip there. And that's just water. What about food? Fuel?

My brain hurts.

But The Martian does a great job bypassing these menial problems and focusing on the conflict of a time in the future when humanity has already fixed them. It focuses on a time when traveling to Mars is no longer a limitation, but an expectation. That's what I like about it. 

And that is what makes fantastic science fiction. 

Allow me to put a disclaimer on the following film review. I have not read the novel just yet. I've wanted to, but life is a beautiful, but horribly busy thing that sometimes catches up with me. So, although I plan on doing just that, I haven't yet. No comparisons to the novel will leak in here, unfortunately. On the other hand, it offers a nonjudgemental point of view about the film's entertainment value. I had no idea what to expect going into the theatre and, because of that, I came out with a fresh and interesting perspective on the storyline.

There seems to be a beauty in that, as well.


1) There Is Optimism In The Characters

Too often we are bogged down by the pessimism of the science fiction genre. This is including myself, as an author of these types of novels. The wilderness of space, other planets, and the annihilation of the human race are all way too potent to ignore, but sometimes we focus too heavily on them and underestimate the willingness of humanity to survive.

Matt Damon's character (Dr. Mark Watney) is clearly affected by his improbable situation when abandoned on Mars. The audience knows it, too, but he plays the confident card most of the time because he understands hope is the most essential aspect of survival. The facial expressions, the moments of anger and overwhelming frustration, the's there. It just doesn't consume the storyline and allows the true nature of the characters to shine through.

The other characters are very similar. They are constantly working through the "death" of their friend and fellow scientist, but trying to move on in the process of traveling home from Mars. In the story, updated technology allows a one-way trip of 4 months to reach Mars. News of Watney's survival throws the group for a loop, for certain, and changes the story arc drastically. Yet, through all of the blindsided discoveries, the group still remains hopeful. And, that, is what makes The Martian different than most science fiction films out there right now. 

2) Science Is A Medium, Not A Focal Point

What's one of the worst things a sci-fi creator can do? Infiltrate the story's arc with too much science. A lot of the time, creators feel the need to explain the science behind every decision the characters make because they are fearful that the audience might not understand it.

Great authors and filmmakers don't feel the need to reassure their audiences. Why? Because great science fiction enters a new realm of subtlety.

The science is in the story. It makes the audience wonder, a) where it came from, and b) how is it used -or- how it can be used. But, it is assumed it's a natural part of the story's progression.

Example, you ask? Sure! 

Dr. Mark Watney (Damon's character) discovers an unmanned probe at one point in the movie. In order to get it working, he dismantles an electronic panel of some sort, depressurizes the space lab, and uses those wires to fire up the probe. It's a simple process, but Ridley Scott (the director of The Martian) does not even attempt to explain this scene's significance. Why should he? After all, isn't the fact that Watney understood how to do this with relative ease enough? It would be super boring if Ridley Scott decided to explain it all, don't you think?

3) It Reaches Everyone In Some Way

I'm a nerd. For a long time, I tried to suppress this part of me. That was a bad idea. So one day, I decided...never again. If people perceive me as a nerd, then so be it. The fact is, I love crazy shit. I love thinking about "what if" hypotheses and what humans might do if they're caught up in super intense conflict. Part of why I'm an author is because I get to make up my own scenarios and live as many lives as I can muster. 

The best stories are the ones that start with a specific audience - women in love, sci-fi geeks, jocks - and then somehow transcend that stereotype and offer something to everyone. It's not easy to do...kind of like getting a kid to eat vegetables when he's been eating ice cream all day.

So, sure. It's easy to hook a guy like me with a space odyssey tale. But what about the others who aren't necessarily the biggest sci-fi fans? 

1) It's a love story...not in the main arc, but it's there in the stories of the ancillary characters, 2) There's investment in Watney's character. You want him to survive, although you have no idea if he actually will, and 3) People love "the underdog" story - a person overcoming all odds.

Put these reasons together and, there you go, a story that hits the heartstrings of men and women across the globe. It's like we can't help ourselves when it comes to stories.

Take Hoosiers for example - a basketball story about a coach faced with the impossible feat of winning a championship. How about Rocky IV - a story about a boxer up against an international cold war Soviet stud filled with anabolic steroids...and wins. Or The Karate Kid - an underwhelming teenager from Jersey learns karate and beats the school bully and his evil dojo. 

So there you have it, I believe The Martian falls in the same category as the underdog tales of our past. It will last into the future like that of Hoosiers, Rocky IV, and The Karate Kid because it follows the same trajectory. Matt Damon has really outdone himself in this one. And I like it. 

I like it a lot.

Until next time,