Mars, the Red Planet, has stoked the imagination of stargazers for a long, long time. Could life exist on our planetary neighbor? Most recently, NASA announced that it appears that liquid water, at least occasionally, flows there. A manned landing is certainly within the realm of possibility. It’s exciting.
Andy Weir has captured that excitement in his book aptly entitled The Martian. Most books never make it to the big screen. So when a new book becomes a new movie you can be certain that the story has some pop-cultural clout. The Martian is such a book. Weir has written a near perfect science fiction, or futuristic, novel for nerds. At the same time, he has unintentionally written a deeply religious novel. It’s gotten rave reviews from both scientists, science fiction writers, and now, Hollywood.
Humanities majors, like myself, will probably have to trust the author on some of the science and technology. I’m not the guy to say whether his chemistry is correct. Either way,TheMartian spins a good yarn.
The premise is believable. At some point in the not-so-distant future, humanity will leave its mark on the planet Mars. Mark Watney, an interplanetary astronaut with a background in both engineering and botany, is part of the Ares 3 crew. Due to a series of truly unfortunate events, his crewmates believe that Mark is dead. In reality he is very much alive. Mark is literally left behind. In his struggle to survive he must rely solely upon technology and his own intelligence.
Back on earth, the world keeps tabs on Mark. He is observed by satellites circling the Red Planet. A team of NASA scientists work around the clock to find a way to save him. Eventually NASA enlists the aid of the Chinese space program.
In a last best hope for rescue, a wild plan is concocted. It is a plan which includes vast amounts of technological wizardry and personal courage. The whole world is watching. As the plan unfolds, people gather in their homes, in pubs, or stare at the big screen in Times Square waiting, hoping for Mark’s rescue. Mark’s parents are briefly mentioned. They are pictured sitting in front of their television watching with parental anguish, a NASA representative quietly and closely on hand to answer any questions.
At first glance, the novel seems to be devoid of religion. Certainly there is little or no traditional religious significance in the novel, but Andy Weir offers a vision of a future in which there is deep religious faith in humanity.
Never are there gatherings in church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. No prayer meetings in which people plead for divine assistance. However, there are two significant religious scenes. Both of them have to do with another astronaut, the devoutly Roman Catholic Rick Martinez (When Hollywood bothers to depict Catholic characters, they tend to be Hispanic).
The first scene takes place about a month after Mark Watney is abandoned on Mars. He desperately needs to make fire. The problem is that everything they brought with them is made of “metal and flame-retardant plastic.” So, he rummages through the personal belongings of the other astronauts and finds, of all things, a small wooden crucifix which Martinez managed to bring with him. So he puts it to “good” use and makes wood shavings from which to start a fire. He jokes that he's left himself vulnerable to “Martian vampires.” In a Promethean moment Mark steals fire from a nonexistent god. The secret fire of technological knowledge the gods have kept for themselves is stolen by Man.
The other significant religious scene occurs when NASA scientists decide to send the Ares 3 crew, the same crew that mistakenly left him behind, back to Mars to save Mark. The ship’s Commander Lewis has a heart-to-heart with (you guessed it) Rick Martinez.
“We need to face the possibility that he won’t make it…,” Lewis said. “If that happens, we need to keep morale up. We still have a long way to go before we get home.”
“He was dead before,” Martinez said. “It was rough on morale, but we soldiered on. Besides, he won’t die.”
“It’s pretty bleak, Rick,” said Lewis. “He’s already fifty kilometers into the storm, and he’ll go another ninety kilometers per sol. He’ll get in too deep to recover soon.”
Martinez shoot his head. “He’ll pull through, Commander. Have faith.”
She smiled forlornly, “Rick, you know I’m not religious.”
“I know,” he said. “I’m not talking about faith in God. I’m talking about faith in Mark Watney.”
Even a devout Roman Catholic like Martinez is converted to the new faith in humanity. If we’re to be saved, it will be through faith in human intelligence, technology, and raw determination. This is the ultimate self-help story. The Martian preaches a message of faith in the innate goodness of Man and the inevitability of human progress.
Spoiler Alert: Mark is rescued. He reflects on his ordeal and asks the question “Why” so much time and money had been spent to save a “dorky botanist”? Mark answers his own question:
I know the answer to that. Part of it might be what I represent: progress, science, and the interplanetary future we’ve dreamed of for centuries. But really, they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out….If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes there are assholes who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do.
I read these last paragraphs and realized what had been so blatantly missing in The Martian.There are no sinners. Yes, there are some weak asinine bureaucrats, but even they are basically good. It’s as if the children of Lake Wobegon had grown up to become scientists and astronauts. In The Martian, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
No one wrestles with greed, or jealousy, or lust. The world is ruled by selfless, sainted scientists. It is this one-sided, shallow, overly optimistic to the point of unrealistic portrayal of our new Robinson Crusoe and the good people who try to save him which ruined the novel for me. I’ll take Brave New World, 1984, The Martian Chronicles, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, or Dune over this sterilized utopian vision in which there are no real human beings. There are only very smart, very nice, very funny, very kind people all working together in a world without sin, only technical difficulties. The Martian is an extended tract for this new religion.
Eric Riesen is the senior pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, in Pittsburgh (Brentwood), PA.