A few years ago Geoff Ryman, the renowned author of “Was” and “The Unconquered Country”, got sick of the tropes of science fiction. Faster-than-light interstellar travel, aliens, and alternate realities were cheap devices that encouraged boring and lazy writing. While we may someday send devices to other stars, we certainly won’t go in our present bodies, nor will aliens visit us in anything even vaguely like human form or technological level. FTL violates causality anyway. Those ideas are exhausted! Get over them! Don’t think that you can burn up this planet and then find another! He argued for Mundane SF, one that has some vague relation to reality, unlike the wish-fulfillment of pulp concepts from the 1930s.
He came in for much grief and mockery, of course, partly from people who really believe in Star-Trek-ish futures, and partly from those who thought he was being too restrictive. They’re just stories after all. His manifesto has had some effect, though. Big names of today like Charlie Stross, Alastair Reynolds and Karl Schroeder have actually given up on FTL, and find ways to tell interstellar stories with mildly plausible slower-than-light travel. Stross has been particularly dismissive of the old ideas. He notes that it probably takes at least 100 million people to maintain even the current state of technology, so thinking that a tiny space colony is going to ride out the destruction of the Earth is ludicrous. Note that North Korea can’t support modern tech with even 20 million people, and that the whole Soviet Union really couldn’t either.
Now a new author, Andy Weir, has come out with an SF novel so Mundane that it practically needs its own category – “The Martian”. It’s about the third manned expedition to Mars, the one that goes horribly wrong. A huge dust storm blows up, and forces the crew to blast off early. Just as they are making their way to the ascender rocket, the storm knocks over their communication dishes, and an antenna spears one of them. The life support readings in his spacesuit go to zero. The storm is about to tip over the ascender too, so they abandon his body and take off. The antenna just destroyed his electronics, though, and he survives. Now he has to make it to the next expedition in four years time with just the stuff abandoned at the base, and completely cut off from the earth.
Weir has great fun working out how this could be done. Not enough food? Create soil out of Martian sand and compost, including his own waste, and spread it over every inch of floor space in his habitats. Seed it with potato eyes from supplies meant for a Thanksgiving dinner, and use the hab solar panels to power grow lights. Get water from left-over hydrazine fuel in the descent vehicle and react it with oxygen broken out from the CO2 in the Martian atmosphere. He actually puts numbers to all this, something you never see in novels. Things continue to go wrong, of course, but the protagonist is an astronaut after all, and so is determined, smart, and unflappable. Maybe implausible as well, since the things that happen to him would leave any actual person gibbering in panic, but he keeps a cocky sense of humor as well.
Weir says that he has long been a space fan, and an amateur writer. He grew up in California and now works in Palo Alto as a programmer. He got to working out the details of a manned Mars trip and then wondered what would happen in various disaster scenarios. When that gelled into a story, he started posting chapters of it for free on his website . There’s also a lot of fanfic there, and a nice piece of philo-fic, “The Egg”. The story started getting a lot of attention, so he assembled it into a Kindle eBook. Then Crown came along with a publishing contract (six figures for a first novel!) and it came out this month in hardback, which is how I read it. At the moment it’s 15th on Amazon’s SF & Fantasy best sellers list. Someone has even bought the movie rights! Rising from the sea of freefic to a published novel is a rare story of survival in itself.
So the book is fun and engaging, especially to technicals. What it doesn’t have is any sense of transcendance, a key aspect of SF. Mars is portrayed as dead, and as deadly. It’s like a particularly boring stretch of Antarctica, but even more ready to kill you. There are no aliens or mysterious artifacts, and not even any Martian bacteria.
It’s as realistic a portrayal of an expedition to Mars as can be devised, and it leaves this fan unsatisfied. I contrast it with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red/Green/Blue Mars novels. Those too gave a Mundane picture of Martian exploration, with no fantastic elements allowed. Yet Robinson loved the wild planet itself and luxuriated in descriptions of it. He’s a mountain climber and so is attracted to barren, open places. He was also attracted to the idea of rebuilding society in a better way, the old Pilgrim dream. All three books formed the best SF novel ofthe 90s.
But maybe these are just times for stories of desperate survival. This novel is a close parallel to the recent Robert Redford movie “All is Lost”. That too is an account of one man surviving when everything fails, this time on a yacht in the Indian Ocean. He too is cut off from the rest of humanity when a storm shorts out his radio, and must improvise his way past one challenge after another. That too kept me engaged throughout. Yet it had a sense of the beauty of the world that I didn’t get in “The Martian”, and is also in RGB Mars. It also had a rather spiritual ending, which can be interpreted however you like. That too isn’t in Weir’s book. Still, I look forward to his next!
Update 10/22/14: A movie version of “The Martian” is underway! Starring Matt Damon, no less, and directed by Ridley Scott. This sort of ultra-realistic SF is the exact opposite style of Scott’s disastrous film “Prometheus”, so it will hopefully improve his reputation.