The Contest Between Homer and Hesiod, in Space

There is not much about Andy Weir’s The Martian that ought to work. And yet it works.

The novel is like a twisted literary experiment: can you write a story that is about 5% dialogue, 10% action, and 85% exposition? And can the exposition be about scientific problem solving and the technical details of NASA space exploration? And would anyone want to read the result?

In fact, the result is not merely gripping but suspenseful and inspiring.

What works is the story’s basic premise: astronauts on a manned mission to Mars are forced by a sandstorm to abort their mission and return to Earth. During the evacuation, one of them is separated from the party and presumed dead. Astronaut Mark Watney awakes to find himself alone on the planet, with no chance of rescue for another four years, and not enough supplies to get him that far.

In short, it’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars. By coincidence, I recently re-read Robinson Crusoe and it is remarkably similar: there are action scenes at the beginning and the end, but the whole middle of the book is simply a thorough daily log book recounting the ingenious problem-solving of a man trying to survive.

What makes it work, in the case of The Martian, is our hero’s default mode: in the face of every problem or setback, Watney first thinks he’s doomed, then comes up with a way to survive the immediate setback and live a few hours or days, buying him time to come up with an even better and more ingenious solution that just might keep him alive until he is rescued, if nothing else goes wrong. But of course, something else always goes wrong, forcing him to come up with another inventive solution.

Here is what happens after Watney attempts to burn hydrogen in his “Hab” (short for “Habitat,” the pressurized tent in which he lives) in order to make water.

It’s obvious now, in retrospect. But it never occurred to me that some of the hydrogen just wouldn’t burn. It got past the flame, and went on its merry way. Damn it, Jim, I’m a botanist, not a chemist!

Chemistry is messy, so there’s unburned hydrogen in the air. All around me. Mixed in with the oxygen. Just…hanging out. Waiting for a spark so it can blow the Hab up!

Once I figured this out and composed myself, I got a Ziploc-sized sample bag and waved it around a bit, then sealed it.

Then, a quick EVA to a rover, where we keep the atmospheric analyzers. Nitrogen: 22 percent. Oxygen: 9 percent. Hydrogen: 64 percent.

I’ve been hiding here in the rover ever since.

It’s Hydrogenville in the Hab.

I’m very lucky it hasn’t blown. Even a small static discharge would have led to my own private Hindenburg.

So I’m here in Rover 2. I can stay for a day or two, tops, before the CO2 filters from the rover and my space suit fill up. I have that long to figure out how to deal with this.

The Hab is now a bomb.

I’ll let you discover for yourself how he gets out of that one.

Watney comes up with a plan to feed himself by growing potatoes on Mars (which is a lot more difficult than you might think, given the harsh conditions of the planet’s thin, cold, dry atmosphere). He also re-establishes communications with Earth and comes up with a plan for a dash across the planet’s surface to rendezvous at the landing site for the next Mars team. But of course, it’s not that simple, and Weir keeps a series of plot twists coming fast enough to test our heroes—Watney and his would-be rescuers on Earth—and keep us in suspense about the outcome.

There is a famous scene in the 1995 film Apollo 13, when the astronauts are having trouble with their carbon dioxide filters. They need the filters to keep their air breathable, but the filters are the wrong size because they were taken from another part of the ship. Back at Houston, one of the mission controllers brings a group of engineers into a room and tells them that they have a few hours to solve the problem, using only the tools and materials available to the astronauts. They brainstorm and come up with a solution. I remember thinking at the time that I wished the whole movie had been like that one scene. Apparently, I wasn’t alone; that scene has already inspired a successful television series (BBC’s “Scrapheap Challenge,” which came to America as “Junkyard Wars”). The Martian takes the same idea and makes it into the whole story.

I will admit that I am the target market for this sort of thing. I’m a particular fan of “hard” science fiction, i.e., science fiction that sticks as close as possible to what is already known and proven. The scenario may be fictional, but the science is not, and one of the great things about The Martian is that it is all seamlessly realistic, requiring no suspension of disbelief or reliance on the deus ex machina of imaginary treknology.

Because it focuses so heavily on science and technology, those who have less background in the subject may find the action harder to follow and a lot less interesting. But they’re also missing out. The Martian is a story about the most dramatic and important thing there is: the ability of the mind to think, and behind that, the refusal to give up and the determination to keep thinking and to solve every new problem that comes along.

This is especially welcome because it is something that is not portrayed frequently enough or taken seriously enough in our art and entertainment.

I recently criticized “Game of Thrones” for its gleeful emphasis on gruesome violence, and the show’s fans assured me, rather heatedly, that it was necessary to have really evil and powerful villains who do horrible things to people, because without that there could be no drama and the story would be totally boring. This notion can easily be refuted by a look at this history of literature. Victor Hugo, for example, made a habit of writing very dramatic stories in which the central conflict is between heroes who are motivated by opposing ideals. And there have been a number of famous stories where the conflict is entirely man versus nature, such as Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” The Martian is in this tradition. It has no villains whatsoever; the closest we get is an overly cautious NASA administrator. This story is purely man versus Mars.

Another response along the same lines was to ask, if “Game of Thrones” and its ilk are too gruesome, whether I have ever read Homer. Um, yes, I have. In Greek. And yes, Homer gives us a lot of gruesome passages; the phrase that has always stuck with me is from a battle scene in The Iliad: “and the inward brain spattered forth.” (It took a little work, but I found it quoted here.)

I’m also familiar with an interesting Greek legend about a meeting between Homer and the other great Greek poet of his age, Hesiod. All of this is legendary, since we don’t really know for sure if Homer even existed, whether he lived at exactly the same time as Hesiod, or if the two ever crossed paths. But the point of the story is the contrast between the two poets.

Hesiod’s most famous poem is Works and Days, which is a good deal like an ancient version of Poor Richard’s Almanac. It’s a long dispensation of advice from Hesiod to his irresponsible younger brother, urging him to stop wasting time on disputations in the courts—some things never change—and to take up his responsibilities as a farmer. It’s a lot more entertaining than it sounds, mixing hard-earned life wisdom, musings on economics and politics, mythology about the origins of man, and practical details about how to build an ox-cart and when to plant your crops.

This is the context for the legend, in which Homer and Hesiod end up in the same city and are summoned by the king for a contest. They are given various poetic challenges and have to compose verses on the fly, facing off in a battle of wits. The upshot is that Homer pretty much runs rings around Hesiod when it comes to the beauty of his poetry. But the king gives the prize to Hesiod anyway, “declaring that it was right that he who called upon men to follow peace and husbandry should have the prize rather than one who dwelt on war and slaughter.”

This legend shows that the Greeks were aware of this problem with their founding literary traditions and were wary of cultivating too strong a fascination with Homer’s bloody tales, despite the brilliance of his storytelling. Their concerns were very similar to my own reservations about our modern day brain-spatterers, who cannot claim the same compensating literary virtues.

You can think of The Martian as the contest between Homer and Hesiod—in space.

Unfortunately, as in the original version of the contest, Hesiod’s side has a few literary flaws. Some of them are the flaws you might expect from a computer programmer who has clearly spent years memorizing every detail of proposed manned missions to Mars, but who is a lot less prepared to flesh out original and varied minor characters.

The most noticeable literary flaw jumps out at you from the first sentence: an abundant overuse of obscenities. A few swear words are considered necessary these days, presumable to achieve a sense of sophisticated realism, but the effect in this book is quite the opposite. It comes across as juvenile, as a 14-year-old’s conception of what adults would talk like, because they can swear anytime they like, as much as they want. When you grow up and actually become an adult, the novelty wears off, and if all goes well you realize how little the F-word adds to your vocabulary.

This verbal tic is supposed to fit in with what is actually an endearing aspect of our hero’s personality: his tendency (as explained in the story by a NASA psychologist) to deal with danger and adversity by making irreverent jokes. But the language is gratuitous and off-putting. It is probably meant to leaven the technical scientific details that dominate the rest of the narration, but it just seems that much dumber by comparison, and this is the main reason it took me about 50 pages to settle into The Martian—long enough to start tuning out the F-bombs and get absorbed in the story.

There is a decent chance this will all be fixed in post-production, so to speak. Hollywood has already optioned the movie rights, and The Martian will make one heck of a vehicle for a young actor who will be required to dominate the screen and hold our attention for most of its running time. One hopes the producers will see no incentive to endanger the PG rating of a feel-good, big tent blockbuster by keeping the foul language of the original. Then again, Hollywood types don’t always know their own business. Nor do publishers: Weir originally self-published The Martian after being rejected by agents, which explains the absence of an editor to smooth out the manuscript’s rough edges.

Yet for all of its surface profanity, the underlying message of The Martian is an elevated view of man. It is a vision of man, not as a brute in a Hobbesian struggle of all against all, but as a thinker and problem solver defined by his ingenuity and clear-headed courage in the face of adversity.

This benevolent view of man is stated in book itself, when Watney marvels at the enormity of the rescue effort mounted back on Earth.

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 [expletive deleted] who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do.

That’s a perspective we really need to keep in mind when faced with our culture’s steady drumbeat telling us how rotten we are.

Whatever its faults, I think we can count The Martian as another win for Hesiod.

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