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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.