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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 2, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Martian, the End of the World

I know, there's not a single soul who was waiting to see Jurassic World until my review came out. And besides, there's not much to say.

Special effects, great. Dinosaurs, cool. Number of neat new ways to kill people, adequate. Chris Pratt, present.

There is nothing else in this whole movie. Every single character comes straight out of the book of movie cliches that every screenwriter acquires in film school.

Two boys: older one bored and sex-obsessed, younger one spunky and likely to say the smart thing and then get ignored.

Parents who are getting divorced, but still get along great. Busy park executive who doesn't have time for love or for nephews till all heck breaks loose and then discovers both. Assistant who's supposed to be watching the boys but is obsessed with her mobile phone, and who dies in a spectacular way without us caring at all.

In fact, to put it bluntly, this movie is so badly written that we didn't care about anybody but Chris Pratt. They could have killed anybody else and it would have been fine.

Except the black guy. This is the one place where the movie knew it was in cliche-land and subverted it. We knew the black guy would die, he was about to die, and then he didn't.

Of course, it didn't matter to the story, because after he Didn't Die he also didn't do anything that mattered. So he might as well have died.

The one most unbelievable thing: Real soldiers getting on a chopper with a half-trained civilian pilot who has never flown combat missions.

The parents' divorce meant nothing to the story except that we had one scene where the younger boy cried about it while we wondered if the monster would rip into the monorail. That scene exists, I think, because if you cast a Kid Who Can Cry, you gotta let him cry.

The only reasons to see this movie are: Chris Pratt. The big water dinosaur. Chris Pratt. And Chris Pratt.

If anybody ever sees this movie twice, it will be to see Chris Pratt again.

*

When you've got Ridley Scott directing a sci-fi movie, with Matt Damon in the lead, you know you've got a serious attempt at a blockbuster.

And when it comes to The Martian, scheduled to open in October, I can't imagine what stupid thing they could possibly do to keep this from being one of the major hits of the year -- at the level of Gravity, or, if there's any justice, better.

In fact, this movie will be practically a remake of Gravity, only this time with plausible science and intelligent writing.

The "Martian" of the title is an American astronaut named Mark Watney, who is presumed dead in a violent sandstorm on the surface of Mars. The rest of the crew escapes the planet's surface just in time. It's not until some time later that mission control on Earth realizes, via satellite surveillance, that Mark isn't dead.

They realize that, not because they happen to take a snapshot of him as a satellite passes overhead, but rather because he's making changes to the environment. Moving things around.

And those movements aren't random. Mark knows that the next Mars mission won't be for more than two years. He knows where they'll land; he knows the schedule on which their supplies will arrive. How can he stay alive long enough to meet them when they come?

The problem isn't air ... not at first. He has a good habitat and plenty of atmosphere. The problem is food. When he runs out, that's it.

Or is it? NASA sent this crew with something other than prepackaged food. Because they were going to be there over the Christmas holidays, they sent real potatoes. Living potatoes. And it happens that Mark was the mission's botanist. If anybody could figure out how to create viable soil in which to grow enough potatoes to keep him alive, it's him.

So he becomes the first farmer on Mars -- and the first a lot of other things. He figures out a plan, and when it doesn't work, he figures out why. He makes mistakes because he didn't foresee the consequences of certain actions. Some of those mistakes are potentially life-ending.

And some of his problems are natural, like a dust storm that covers a huge area and blocks out just enough of the sun's rays that he won't be able to recharge the batteries on his vehicle long enough to drive it far enough to reach the rendezvous on time. Everything hinges on how soon he notices the almost invisible incremental darkening of the daytime sky -- and the growing inefficiency of his solar collectors.

You don't have to wait for the movie -- and, frankly, I think you'll enjoy the movie more if you've already read the book. The Martian, by Andy Weir, is a wonderful throwback to an earlier era of science fiction -- arguably the best period of sci-fi, a thing that's hard for me to say because I wasn't in it.

Back in the 1920s and 1930s, cheap pulp magazines with adjectives like "thrilling" and "amazing" and "astounding" and "fantastic" in their names offered their readers grand adventures, with heroes like Flash Gordon and John Carter, leaping across galaxies without regard to little things like scientific law.

But then an editor named John Campbell got control of the magazine now called Analog, and he began to nurture and direct writers who were capable of and interested in creating stories that took science seriously. Heinlein's and Asimov's talent belonged to them, but they and dozens of other writers listened to Campbell's suggestions and adhered to his rules.

The result was a couple of decades of "competent-man" stories -- tales in which a space-farer (or other denizen of the future) is faced with a seemingly insoluble problem, to which he finds an ingenious technological solution that depends on understanding the scientific principles involved.

The solutions weren't always technological -- Asimov's Foundation series is quite possibly the greatest achievement of this era of sci-fi, but it depends more on "laws" of history than on those of science. And there was no law forbidding good characterization and believable dialogue -- Heinlein and Clarke thrived, for instance, and they were joined by writers who improved on their beginnings.

Even after the Campbellian era ended, writers like Larry Niven, Jack McDevitt, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch have continued writing excellent science fiction within that tradition.

Hollywood, as always, lagged behind. For many years, "sci-fi" in the movies always meant monsters. It might have meant spaceships, except that all the special effects were laughably cheesy until 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had a competent-man feel to it ... but then ended with pure mysticism.

Star Wars and Star Trek were, at heart, 1930s sci-fi; their science has always been laughable, antithetical to the scientific rigor that was at least attempted by Campbellian sci-fi.

So when Gravity came along, it marked an attempt to follow the pattern of competent-man sci-fi. Even though the science was bad to the point of weeping, it did have a person caught in an impossible situation who gets out of it by (a) getting rid of George Clooney and (b) finding technical solutions to all her life-threatening problems.

The Martian, though, is far, far more ambitious, as both a novel and a movie. Mars is a planet that can't sustain human life, so Andy Weir tackled the problem of keeping a man alive long enough for rescue to be possible.

But he wasn't writing this in 1952. Readers today have been trained to expect interesting characters in believable relationships. Movies haven't trained them for this, of course, because movies usually use casting as a substitute for good writing. In the book, there is no casting.

And since long sections of the novel consist of Mark Watney himself recording an audio log of his experiences, so that if he dies those who come after him can learn from his experience, Weir is required to write character and dialogue far better than the norm in Campbell's era.

One of the problems that baffled sci-fi writers in the competent-man tradition was "bad language." Some otherwise excellent writers tried to get around this with annoying, unbelievable fake swearwords like "tanj" used where the f-word usually shows up ("tanj" = "there ain't no justice). Impossible to believe such words would actually catch on ... and whenever characters use them in this fiction, the reader is reminded that what he's reading is fake fake fake.

Well, the rules have changed, and Weir can swear to his heart's content. So he does. If you read the book -- or listen to R.C. Bray's excellent narration on the audiobook -- you have to be willing to accept Weir's relentless reliance on the f-word.

Apparently he didn't notice that it is possible to write whole novels in which good writers could convey everything without actually needing to use swear words at all.

Still, that's a minor drawback in an otherwise excellent book. The only real problem is that, after a few hundred pages, you begin to get just a little impatient with the repetition of the same trope: The plan seems to be working, but, oh no! This unexpected problem crops up!

Just in time, Weir stops tossing monkey wrenches into the plan. Because in keeping with the competent man tradition, you don't bother telling the story of the guy who ended up as a frozen corpse on Mars. None of that ambiguity about the ending that we got from Gravity (was that a dream? The afterlife?) or the unforgivable Inception.

That's because the essential worldview of competent-man fiction is optimistic. Whatever goes wrong, if it can be solved, we'll solve it.

The Martian is also a throwback in other ways. Weir tries to internationalize things and does a fair job, but this is, essentially, in the tradition of "Americans in space." The Chinese save the day at one point -- but only Americans can actually toss humans onto other worlds.

This is particularly ironic because, of course, we have gutted NASA and America shows no sign of looking out into space in a serious way again. Right now, America doesn't look likely to resume space exploration -- even though the survival of the human race will eventually, without question, depend on having serious, far-ranging space travel capability. (We will be hit by a civilization-killing asteroid or solar event. Period. We just don't know when.)

Also, the expedition is mostly male. That reflects current reality, but of course we require all our art to take place in a utopian neverland or it will be condemned by the Inquisition. So we can expect the normal background noise of politically-correct hatefulness when the movie comes out. (Like the 17th-century Puritans who couldn't wait till they got the power to ban Christmas.)

Here's the thing. Even if Ridley Scott makes his best movie ever, and Matt Damon gives a nearly solo performance at the level of Tom Hanks's work in Cast Away, there is no way that the movie can include all the cool stuff that's in the book. There isn't time or attention span available for all of it in a film.

So get the book or the audiobook now. It won't make you less interested in the movie, it will make you more interested. It is science fiction, of a certain type, that meets the highest standards.

It's also a really good yarn, always gripping, and quite moving at several points in the story. It beats comic-book fare all hollow.

*

We've never lacked for people who predicted the End of the World. Many speak in vague terms of some future event at an unspecified time, but there are always those who think they know, if not the day and the hour, then at least the decade or century.

Most of the time, if somebody names a day for, say, the Second Coming of Christ, when that day comes and Christ doesn't, the disciples of that particular prophet take the hint and disperse.

Of course, faith often trumps experience, so we have the spectacle of the true believers in the Church of Imminent Ecological Doom (CIED) getting ever more frantic, vituperative, and repressive in their efforts to eliminate all dissent -- even after every prediction they've made has failed completely, after they have failed to show any data supporting their claims, and after they have been caught repeatedly trying to fake the data and conspiring to silence their critics.

When people put their faith above experience or rationality, they become quite dangerous, and the CIED, allied with the Inquisition, is in the process of killing genuine scientific inquiry in the Western world. (Of course, some people deceive themselves that their faith is rationality, and anyone who disagrees with them must therefore be irrational. These people are the most dangerous of all.)

I think there's a deep-seated dread built into human beings, which can become quite extreme in some: a dread that "all this will end." Yet in a very, very weird way, a belief in the End of the World is comforting.

We know that things can happen that will sweep away all our plans and hopes, our loves and pleasures. The main breadwinner of a family can die, or become crippled or unemployed, or simply leave, and suddenly the family is plunged into poverty ... or at least must rethink all their plans for the future.

A company can fail and its workers be unable to find work in their chosen profession. Ill health or injury can end an athletic career. Faithlessness can end a marriage; fraud or failure can wipe out a nest egg. Crimes can destroy the lives of the survivors -- and, when they're caught, the perpetrators.

All these destructive events strike only a few people at any given time, so that they lose everything even as the community as a whole thrives and prospers. It's a desperately lonely feeling; it makes us revert to two years old in our hearts, as we cry out, It's not fair.

But randomness is inherently fair, and every question of "Why me?" can by answered, in one's own heart, by the equally plausible question "Why not me?"

And ultimately, since we're all going to die, at some point we know the world will end ... for us as individuals.

But when everybody suffers from the same cataclysmic or catastrophic change, then we're all in the same boat, right? We won't suffer alone. That will be fair, right? There is a kind of harmony in the universe.

And if we lost our job or money or savings or investments in a major economic downturn, then we can be assured that it was not our fault.

Let me point to a couple of very good movies. In Deep Impact, the sacrifice of the astronauts breaks up the asteroid enough that when it collides with Earth, it doesn't end all life. There are people around to pick up the pieces.

But in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, nothing that humans can do affects the course of the asteroid. Human life on Earth simply ... ends.

But it ends for everybody, at about the same time, and for exactly the same reason. It is weirdly easier to deal with it, emotionally, because we're all in the same boat. There is peace without hope at the end of Seeking a Friend -- yet it affirms the value of life.

Now, it happens that since we're all going to die, we really do live in that universe in which the world ends for everybody in pretty much the same way: The brain stops getting oxygen, falls into unconsciousness, and dies. All our struggle against death is merely an effort to change the schedule of this event.

Believing in the End of the World at a specific date puts us all on the same schedule.

Here's the thing: There have been world-shattering events, repeatedly. Not floods, volcanos, or earthquakes. Floods only affect the people in low-lying areas; volcanic eruptions can affect weather far away, but they only destroy a localized area; earthquakes can be felt far away, but they are only cataclysmically destructive fairly near the epicenter.

However, plagues rely on the human hunger for society and trade for the success of the rampaging microbe, so they single out the human race -- and the spread of particularly virulent, airborne strains is almost impossible to prevent.

So far, however, no plague has been one hundred percent efficient. Plagues crippled the Roman Empire several times before the barbarians came, and then in the Fourteenth Century the Black Death came to Europe. But there were survivors.

Since we are heirs of European civilization, the memory of the Black Death looms large in our consciousness. But George Huppert became interested in what happened afterward, to the people for whom the world did not end, but merely changed, and so he wrote After the Black Death: A Social History of Early Modern Europe.

I already read about many of the changes, in general and specific terms, in Barbara Tuchman's very popular A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Now, working with far fewer pages, Huppert does a much better job of re-creating the transforming communities of Europe after the plague. He isn't interested in the big events, but rather in the social changes in town and farm.

Huppert's research crosses all boundaries, and he finds that almost every nation and language group faced similar stresses and responded in similar ways. I emerged from reading this book with a clear sense that much of what we value about Western civilization (even as our universities obey the Inquisition and stop teaching students to value it) emerged or drew great strength from the vast social disruption caused by the Black Death.

The End of the World is pretty final for those who die, and if it turns out to be everybody (as it will be if a big enough asteroid approaches us and we have no high-tech presence in space to try to stop it), then it's meaningless to talk about what comes after.

But if the End of the World allows even some people to survive, or even most people, then it becomes a fulcrum on which we can rebalance our culture and reinvent our communities.

However, there's nothing in After the Black Death to indicate that anything we do on purpose will improve anything for anybody. We humans have a great knack for misidentifying the causes of things, assigning blame instead of seeking solutions, and plunging ourselves into terrible conflict so that we can kill as many survivors of the cataclysm as possible.

In our time, we not only have the threat of diseases that can leap across boundaries and spread death everywhere, we also have movements like radical Islam whose active goal is the destruction of Western Civilization, especially liberal values like freedom of thought and speech and press and faith. (Of course, we have an "intellectual" elite bent on accomplishing exactly the same destruction, and they're succeeding to an astonishing degree.)

Such changes are spread by the virus of intolerance, which is especially ironic when the most repressive groups announce themselves as champions of tolerance. Just as the name of the gentle, forgiving Christ was invoked to justify pogroms and wars for centuries, so now the ideal of tolerance and diversity is invoked to justify the imposition of uniformity and thought control. (And, for that matter, the ultimate pogrom, as "liberals" conspire with radical Islam in Hitler's unfinished plan to annihilate the Jews.)

People often get worked up about the version of the End of the World that they actually hope for. Global Warming would completely justify the CIED's hatred of their Great Satan -- technological human civilization. Even though global warming at its very worst would require mere relocation and adaptation, and relatively few would die, the true believers look forward to it as a complete fulfilment of their faith. It is the hoped-for cataclysm, the eucatastrophe of the Ecotists.

And then there's another all-too-human tendency: The desire to end somebody else's world. These days, that evil hunger kills Christians in Iraq, Nigeria, and South Carolina; but it also seeks to wipe out the ideas and artifacts of despised and defeated cultures -- their flags, their monuments, their heroes, their history.

It turns dissenters into heretics, heretics into witches; and there is a fierce triumphant joy in the hearts of the haters as they light the fires under books and careers and, eventually, people in cages.

If you doubt me, all you have to do is peruse Facebook and Twitter to watch the mobs form, torches in hand. We don't have to wait for the Black Death or an asteroid or even global warming to End the World.

*

Speaking of the Black Death, I know how to kill a cable news show. It's a simple formula: Cover the same story, night after night, while nothing happens.

Sure, it was mildly interesting when a couple of murderers escaped from prison. But for many days later, in which nothing happened, it's not merely boring, it's nauseating to hear Greta Van Susteren lecture her know-nothing "guest experts" on what the searchers should be doing.

It's like when that airliner disappeared over the Indian Ocean. The actual news consisted of: Still looking, found nothing. That can be covered in, say, half a minute. Or a crawl under the actual news program. But instead, there were cable stations that gave over all their programming, all day, to empty commentary on the search.

You had to switch away just to save your sanity. There are only so many minutes or hours you can focus your attention on nothing.

It's a big ocean. There are lots of woods in the eastern U.S. Searches are incredibly boring as news stories until somebody is found. Sensible news directors should say: No stories until something actually happens, and then the briefest possible coverage until the actual target of the search is found.

It's one thing to have moment-to-moment coverage of, say, O.J.'s famous low-speed chase, because it ended in a relatively short time. But news is, let's face it, entertainment.

And even if you're pulling in the numbers by running round-the-clock search coverage, you're not actually entertaining anybody. Even those who watch your channel will remember: Yeah, that's the network where you watch and watch and nothing happens. Flip.


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