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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 8, 2015

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


The Martian, X

When I was in college, I took a script-writing class from Tad Danielewski, a director, writer, and movie soundtrack composer. He was talking about different genres of film one day, and somebody (not me) pointed out that he was ignoring science fiction.

He looked stunned. "That's not film, that's trash," he said. A few people looked at me because they knew I wrote the stuff. At the time I thought, What an idiot. But now I understand that he was viewing sci-fi, not as a reader, but as a film-goer. And he was right. Up to that time, movie sci-fi was trash.

Sci-fi films were about giant ants, aliens thawed out of Antarctic ice, pod people replacing humans, the living dead, and really dumb slow robots (cf. Daleks). Oh, yeah -- don't forget War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man and The Time Machine. All of them gimmick-driven; none of them was built around any kind of character.

Shortly after he said that, though, Star Wars came out. And Alien, and Blade Runner, and with improved special effects, they really classed up the genre.

Except, when you get right down to it, they were still mostly monster movies or gung-ho adventures with a lot of metaphysical nonsense. Written science fiction had long since moved beyond that level. In fact, it's fair to say that sci-fi movies were still stuck in the science fiction of the 1930s.

Written science fiction had discovered scientific rigor and characterization. The rigorous stuff was called "hard-science fiction," not because it was difficult, but because it dealt with the hard sciences, the ones with mathematically measurable data and right-or-wrong answers. Physics, astronomy, mathematics, and engineering.

The book The Martian, by Andy Weir, was first-rate hard-science fiction, meaning that it's built around accurate science and technology. The story of an astronaut-botanist stranded on Mars, fighting for survival through science-based problem-solving, is emotional and personal, not in spite of the good science, but in large part because of it.

When you believe in the story, it's far easier to care about the characters.

The problem with movie versions of sci-fi stories is that they are usually a joke, scientifically. Belief is impossible even if you don't know much about science, because the writers of most sci-fi films go straight for the magic.

"The Force"? That's not even magic, it's religion. 2001? The whole thing is about an alien species functioning as God, and it ends with a giant baby watching over Earth like a guardian angel. "Warp speed"? Makes as little sense as "the Kessel run." Gravity? From beginning to end, the science and technology are laughable, and George Clooney's tendency not to stay dead makes us question whether anything is real.

There have been a few first-rate non-monster, non-religious, non-fantasy sci-fi films -- but most of the best of them aren't set in outer space. (Think of Inception, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Blade Runner.) And those that are -- Serenity is the only one that comes to mind -- are really adventure stories, not hard-science fiction.

The Martian may have been filmed in Jordan (the outdoor scenes) and Hungary (the sound-stage interiors), with huge reliance on computer-generated images, but because the script was faithful to a smart, well-researched novel, it ends up being a scientifically smart movie.

As far as the audience is concerned, it takes place on Mars.

The Martian is also a politically savvy movie, because NASA is shown functioning like a government agency full of smart people who know where their funding comes from. The science guys are not ridiculed for being geeks.

The only character who comes close to fitting the geek stereotype is Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), who is painfully shy, lives in a slovenly apartment -- and yet is not eagerly trying to fit in with the "cool" people. What's cool to him is astrodynamics, and we soon realize that his social ineptness arises from his absolute concentration on the problem he's trying to solve.

In the book, there was a lot of technical information, which worked because Mark Watney is an engaging character (and because Andy Weir is a terrific writer). The movie doesn't have the time for that. Most of the science is black-boxed -- we see it working, we don't have to know how -- but because it's in the book, we can trust it in the film.

So the film concentrates, not on the technical matters (though they're clearly presented), but on the human choices. How much are you willing to sacrifice? How much are you willing to risk? What comes first, to the NASA guys on Earth -- career, the future of manned spaceflight, or taking the risks to save this one guy?

And what comes first to the crew of the Mars ship that took off without Mark Watney, because they had convincing evidence that he was dead? It seems easy even to them, until they really think about it and realize just what they're giving up. Yet, as one astronaut explains to his wife about the fact that he'll be gone for an extra year and a half: "He'd do the same for me." And we know it's true.

It might seem that this film is that old sci-fi cliche: "Americans in space." I've spent my career trying to overturn that stereotype and show other nations as playing a role in the future. This isn't in pursuit of racial or ethnic "diversity," a goal whose desirability per se has never been demonstrated. I simply take into account the fact that nations and peoples have their ups and downs, and there's every reason to believe that America's century-long "up" is about to end, if it hasn't already.

The Martian takes this into account. Ours is not the only space program in this future setting -- the Chinese have one, too, and there's a point where they can get us out of a jam, but NASA doesn't know that China has that capability. Breaking secrecy is always hard -- but especially so for the Chinese.

And, perhaps more telling, the American characters are, well, American. Without any tokenism, Americans of many ethnicities play vital roles, and nobody makes a big deal about it. Chiwetel Ejiofor doesn't play "the black guy," he plays Vincent Kapoor, a top exec at NASA who argues his case with full authority. Eddy Ko (playing Guo Ming) has Chinese heritage, but it's not about the stereotype of extra-smart Asians; he's one smart guy among many, doing the jobs that happen to be his.

In other words: America -- an identity which includes pieces of every corner of the world, despite the best efforts of Know-Nothings to keep this or that corner unrepresented within our borders. Once they're settled in, they're just one more kind of American.

Director Ridley Scott did not simply film the book, because people would have died of old age watching it. Instead, screenwriter Drew Goddard (World War Z, The Cabin in the Woods) did a superb job of finding the parts of the novel that would work on screen.

The result is that those who have read the book will wait in vain for certain key complications. The whole bit with the invisible sandstorm that threatened Mark Watley's ability to keep his rover fully charged is gone. Why? Because the whole problem comes from something that you can't see. It was cool in the book, but it would be invisible on the screen.

Instead, we get just the right number of disastrous complications that throw off everybody's plans. Things work until they don't, and then they have to figure out how to make them work after all. While Mark Watley is on Mars, struggling to solve all his problems, the teams on Earth and in the spaceship do exactly the same thing -- struggle to find solutions so they can Bring Him Home.

Everybody in this cast is excellent, but Matt Damon's performance as Mark Watley is the root of the movie, and he is superb. Damon's gift is that you don't notice he's acting. No histrionics, no scenery chewing. He makes us feel emotion by letting us understand what he's keeping bottled up inside. Only when he is just about to leave the surface of Mars do we see him letting go ... a little, for a moment.

I worried about the fact that the novel has Watley using the F-word only slightly less often than he uses "the." I was relieved when I saw the PG-13 rating, because the rule is that with that rating, you are allowed one F-bomb and no more.

It came pretty early in Watley's survival struggle, and I thought: OK, we're done.

Well, apparently they changed the rule, because there's a second one spoken aloud. And then another one that is only mouthed, because he's on one side of a window and we're on the other. And then there's the one that he types, but with strategically-placed dashes. Kind of a lot of f-wording for a PG-13 movie.

But the script makes a joke of it -- without making us hear his language, we see the repercussions as they explain to him that everything he says is being broadcast live to the whole world, so ... could he clean it up a little? It becomes comic relief.

I didn't find it offensive, merely surprising that the MPAA broke the rule. Presumably now all other films seeking a PG-13 can plead The Martian rule: Two audible Fs, one clearly mouthed F, one dash-filled written F, and then comical references to F-words.

In this movie it works. And it's not as if your thirteen-year-old has never heard the word -- no, not even if you home-schooled him or her.

What matters is that Mark Watley, as portrayed by Matt Damon, is one of those movie characters you can't forget. The script is way better written than the most recent stranded-astronaut moviex Gravity, and doesn't rely on creating character sympathy by giving him a child who needs him <sob>. That's a dip into the shallowest part of the bag of cheap-writing tricks, and Drew Goddard is above that.

One amusing point: When Matt Damon is fully bearded, he looks amazingly like Leonardo DiCaprio in full beard. It is such a relief when he shaves and becomes Matt Damon again.

It was a pleasure to see Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig in serious roles -- they're both real actors -- and Sean Bean ("Boromir," "Ned Stark") has a chance to play a wonderful nuanced character who is heroic in a much quieter way.

Cut to the chase: The Martian is the first great hard-science fiction movie. It makes a run at being the best science fiction movie ever made, and it's one of the best screen adaptations of a fine novel.

Everyone involved in the film did excellent work, but please remember that the movie's excellence begins with the author of the film, Drew Goddard, the screenwriter. Because he did pretty much everything right, all that the other people had to do was not screw it up. They did way better than "not screwing up," but everything they did rested on his script.

And the script rested on the brilliant work of novelist Andy Weir.

*

Ever since Sue Grafton began writing her Kinsey Millhone mysteries, beginning with "A" Is for Alibi, "B" is for Burglar, and "C" Is for Corpse, it became clear that her series was going to run out of titles after 26 volumes.

I heard that an elderly reader wrote to Sue Grafton along about "K" Is for Killer, asking her to hurry it up, please, or he was not going to be able to live long enough to read them all. I have no idea what Grafton's answer was, but one book a year is all that one can reasonably expect from a writer; anything more, and the writer is simply showing off.

Almost from the start, there has been speculation about what "X" would be for, in the title of the 24th volume. There aren't a lot of English-language words that begin with x. Grafton ducked the problem by simply naming that volume X. It isn't "for" anything.

Except that it might well represent a word that doesn't begin with x: "Ex." The book opens with a betrayed ex-wife who realizes, too late, that her ex-husband, who knows nothing about art, ended up with a potentially million-dollar painting in the settlement. She knows that if she tries to get it back from him and his new wife (her former best friend), he will never give it to her. So she resolves to steal it.

X then fulfils the promise of that opening by ending with Millhone discovering the plot and finding a perfect resolution.

But along the way, most of the action and all of the danger comes from a completely unrelated plotline. Millhone is helping the widow of a former colleague deal with some absurd demands from an IRS agent. In going through the papers of this corrupt private investigator, Millhone finds a paper written in code.

In a way, the coded message is a kind of treasure map, once you know the factor that binds it all together. The X can represent the "X marks the spot" treasure map tradition, or the algebraic "solve for x." And X can also represent the target Millhone is painting over her own heart: "Insert bullet here."

Sue Grafton graduated from the University of Louisville (Kentucky) with a degree in English, and after her first few novels failed to make a splash, went into writing for the screen. She had a good career as a screenwriter, working alone and collaborating with her eventual husband, Steve Humphrey. But, disgusted with the way writers' work was treated in Hollywood, she went back to novel writing with "A" Is for Alibi, vowing that she would never allow the Kinsey Millhone series to be adapted for the screen.

And those of us who remember what a dreadful travesty television made of Robert Parker's Spenser For Hire series (even though we all loved Avery Brooks as Hawk) and how much worse Mike Hammer, Private Eye was, despite the brilliant performance of Stacy Keach -- we can't help but agree with Grafton's decision.

There are tv writers who would do a wonderful job of adapting the books -- the talent is there. The problem is that even with the best intentions, they would bend the stories to fit the needs of television -- whether as a one-hour drama or a series of TV movies. And network executives, vain or terrified actors, and the struggle for ratings would cause ever more changes until neither Grafton nor her readers would recognize any of the characters.

Grafton has threatened her children that she will haunt them if they sell her books to Hollywood after she's dead.

When Grafton wrote "A" Is for Alibi in 1982, she set the story in the fictional city of Santa Teresa, California -- her way of paying tribute to the brilliant, seminal mystery writer Ross Macdonald, who gave that name to his fictional version of Santa Barbara. By the time she got to "G" Is for Gumshoe, she was earning enough from her fiction that she could quit writing for television.

One thing that makes writing a "contemporary" mystery series so attractive is that you can simply use the culture around you in volume after volume. There are things you still have to research -- settings, police and government procedures, and so forth -- but you can surround your characters, as you write each volume, with the very culture you're living in while you're writing.

The drawback is that your character must age right along with the culture. How long could we believe that Spenser would be able to beat up his adversaries, no matter how diligently he trained as a boxer? This was one of the problems that encouraged Parker to switch to writing other, younger sleuth characters who operated on the fringes of Spenser's Boston. They could keep doing all those hard-boiled detective things that Spenser was aging out of.

Sue Grafton may have aspired at first to make Kinsey Millhone "timeless." I remember early on in the series conversing with my wife about how much story time had elapsed between the volumes. We realized that Grafton was keeping the story remarkably free of temporal markers.

But eventually, timelessness broke down, probably because of technology. And it became clear that about three months pass between the volumes, so that Millhone remained in the 1980s as the world moved on. So when you read X, it is now a "period piece" -- still moving through a world without mobile phones, texting, or Facebook. Most offices are still not computerized. Millhone herself writes up her "reports" on a typewriter. Clickety clack.

And don't kid yourself. Grafton now has to research all kinds of things, even though she lived through the 1980s and 1990s. Because human memory is imperfect. When exactly did car phones become popular? What year did handheld cellphones become small and light enough to be able to carry them around (in holsters at first, because they made pockets too baggy)? When did payphones disappear?

Which songs would be playing on the radio? When did minivans become popular? SUVs? When did people stop wearing furs? When did "wetbacks" become "illegal immigrants"? When did we switch from vinyl and cassettes to CDs? And then to MP3s? When did they stop abridging audiobooks? What month, what year exactly?

I ran into this problem in 1991, writing my novel Lost Boys, which is based on my family's experiences when we first moved to Greensboro eight years before, in 1983. I needed the song "Every Breath You Take" for a particular series of events in the novel, and I knew the song came out "about that time" -- but the events were in the autumn and the song didn't come out till months later. If I had relied on memory alone, the song would have been in the book -- and then, when I realized the mistake, it would have driven me crazy ever since. Instead, I used a different and nowhere-near-as-appropriate song.

That's what Grafton has to deal with every time she writes a book set in the recent past. Because even though the 1980s and 1990s feel recent to me, the current generation of teenagers and young adults has no memories of that time. It's history to them!

Sometimes, though, the past and the present come together. At the time of X, California is going through a dangerous drought, though water rationing has not yet become mandatory. The story frequently touches on the efforts of Millhone's landlord, Henry, to conserve water. Since Grafton wrote this volume while California was (and still is) going through an even worse drought, so that people are praying for an El Niño year, it gives the novel an oddly contemporary air.

Grafton is in her seventies. She had a lot of gall, beginning a 26-volume series at the age of 42 and then assuming she'd live long enough to finish it. The actuarial laws are on her side as far as life expectancy is concerned, but she must surely have been aware of how early-onset Alzheimers shattered Ross Macdonald's mystery-writing career way too early.

So even though I fully expect her to be able to finish the remaining two books -- Y and Z Is for Zero (she has announced that title) -- I still hope she has written down an outline of what is supposed to happen to Millhone in those last two volumes. We know there are people still extant who want Millhone dead. We know there are family issues left to resolve. We want her to finally end up with True Love instead of her string of impossible relationships.

I assume that in one of the last two books, she'll have to deal with the death of her elderly neighbor and landlord, Henry; I assume that Henry will leave the house to her in his will, and that she'll find a tenant for the house and continue to live in her garage-size apartment. (The house can't burn down; Grafton has already done that.) Rosa will retire and the food at her restaurant will become more edible but the place will be nowhere near as fun to visit. Maybe Millhone will get a carphone.

The important thing about the Kinsey Millhone series, however, is this: Every novel stands completely alone. You can begin with any book, including X, and have a completely satisfying mystery-reading experience.

And what gives Grafton her cachet is her brilliance with unforgettable minor characters. In X, one of the great pleasures of the book is the pair of elderly neighbors who move in next door and begin to make life strange for Henry and Kinsey. Grafton's mysteries are earnest and deal with great pain, danger, and loss; yet there is always comic relief, usually from the awfulness of ordinary people.

If you haven't treated yourself to reading these books yet, start now. Start with X. If you are equipped to listen to audiobooks, Judy Kaye's reading of them is, as usual, absolutely wonderful. It's time and money well spent.


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