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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Does the Martian have to be set on Mars? Setting as a resource for plotting

Thursday, October 15, 2015

This post builds on ideas that I developed in my recent article on communication technology and narrative. One of the underlying theories behind this piece was that the location where a story is set is not the mere backdrop to events, but quite fundamentally determines the events that can occur or the way they are plotted. Here, I apply these concepts to the recent film and book, The Martian.

Asking a question like 'Does The Martian have to be set on Mars?' seems very daft. There would be a lot of disgruntled cinemagoers were it to turn out that The Martian is, in fact, a film about a man stranded in a multi-storey car park in Walsall. Of course The Martian has to be located on Mars: the clue is in the title.

As it always has done throughout its mythological history, Mars holds an appeal as a place that seems at once very near and very distant. When H.G. Wells opens The War of the Worlds by imagining Martians peering at us through telescopes just as man peers at bacteria through a microscope, Mars seems uncomfortably close to home. Of course, in an astronomical sense it is anything but close, and the sense of tantalising distance is one reason why Mars provides such a focal point for the scientific and literary imagination. Like our closest neighbour, the moon, it is one place that anyone on earth can see, but that (most likely) nobody living on the planet will visit. The same sensibility pervades The Martian; in terms of an audience's cognitive experience, Mars matters.

Nevertheless, many reviews (here; here; here) have unwittingly downplayed the importance of the place itself to the plot. Notably, and entirely understandably, many have made comparison between The Martian and that ur-story of lone survival, Robinson Crusoe. It's not hard to see why The Martian might be cast as Crusoe-in-Space. While Crusoe is shipwrecked, Mark Watney's crewmates have to evacuate in a spaceship; both Crusoe and Watney are left isolated and can use only those tools that they can salvage or craft; both individuals survive on the basis of their wits and intellect in a powerful (capitalistic) vision of the self-made man; both men perceive themselves as first colonists of an uncharted and unclaimed territory; midway through Defoe's novel Crusoe takes on Man Friday for company and aid, while Watney eventually establishes contact and companionship with NASA.

Both the desert island and Mars - and one could add to this list equivalently isolated places as well, such as the Arctic wastes, the jungle, or a boat in the ocean - offer similar opportunities for storytelling and for tracking the basic attributes of the survivor story: the search for shelter, food and water, communication with the outside world, and ultimate rescue. Mars may be significant in terms of the place it holds in our imaginations, but similar events - and the audience's primary anxieties about isolation that result from them - could be evoked by equivalent places on earth. On this structural interpretation, place is mainly a backdrop where plot events occur; it is events, not places, that most motivate a narrative, and readers or viewers.

This, however, is too simplistic. Far from being backdrops, places are what Mike Baynham has termed 'semiotic resources.' Different settings have within them different resources, geographical configurations, social features etc. and they make these available for the purposes of plotting. Depending on their placement, characters have different objects and technologies to hand, and these influence their decisions and actions that constitute a plot. Extending from this, the way in which that plot is conveyed to us - its discourse with the reader or audience - is also affected by its spatial context.

Because of the emphasis it places on literal resources, and because of the way the story about a distant astronaut is conveyed to those on earth (both the earth-based characters in the story, and the real audience of the story) The Martian encompasses the semiotic theory of place in a clear way. There are perhaps two main categories of resource that are unique to Mars as a place: geography, and communicative delay.


This places-as-resources model can be applied in a very literal sense to The Martian. The soil and atmosphere of the planet provide Watney with a combination of resources or threats to those resources that could not be found in equivalently isolated places elsewhere.

The wider narrative arc of The Martian involves the problem of food. Watney has immediate supplies, but not enough to last the four years it will take for a rescue mission to arrive. Watney's growing of food (potatoes) to survive is pretty similar to Crusoe's successes with wheat. And of course in a novel and film that pitches for scientific credibility, it is made possible by the fact that, unlike other planets, Mars really does have soil. However, while Crusoe is an experimental agriculturalist, Watney is a botantist only in name; his main capacity is as an electrical engineer: paramount to Watney's survival is his ability to use and reconfigure solar power. Harnessing the sun's energy allows Watney to preserve limited physical resources such as oxygen and water by recycling them through electricity, and it is these in turn which allow him to grow food, eat and above all to breathe.

It's hard to imagine a similar place on earth where this fundamental relationship could be represented, with electricity being abundant as the source of power and allowing a person to meet his needs of water, food and oxygen but not (as I shall come to shortly) communication with the wider world. Unlike Crusoe, who is also a gatherer of food and water already in the environment, Watney is a maker of these things from scratch, crafting life from electricity like a spacesuited Frankenstein. In no earthly surface environment would this be quite the case. Even the most dystopian setting (such as Cormac McCarthy's The Road) would offer some form of food and/or water, and electricity would play less or no role in making these things that can be already scavenged.

Perhaps the contemporary setting most like that inhabited by Watney might be a nuclear submarine, where such resources would also be produced from scratch through abundant electrical power, in a similar life-supporting bubble. Yet even then the fact that Watney uses solar rather than nuclear power - afforded amply by the Martian day-night cycle - is significant. While a nuclear submarine would offer a hermetic support vessel, solar power harnessed at the planet's surface allows Watney to move outside rather than always to be contained. The plot of The Martian entails Watney figuring a way to pack and transport his life support systems from the habitation module onto a rover so he can make his way to the escape craft. In a present-day setting no other power source would be so mobile across a surface. (Of course, one could change both the setting and period - period being an aspect of setting itself - and imagine a futuristic science fiction universe where a small transportable power source is available. However, for the purposes of argument I'm keeping the temporal variable the same, and just thinking through different spatial possibilities.)

The fact that this takes place in a non-earth environment also lends this a metaphorical quality. In a powerful scene in the movie, the planet offers Watney the gift of light, and correspondingly life, as he makes his journey. Light or the sun has a divine status.

Conversely, the permanent threat is air (or the lack of it), and Watney's need to generate his own to survive. A Martian wind is what causes the crew to evacuate and injures Watney. Air explodes from the habitation module when it is breached. Air escapes from Watney's spacesuit, is always on the brink of running out, and needs continually to be replenished by harnessing the power of the sun to recycle carbon dioxide.

The Martian could be seen as a battle between two elemental forces, the air and the sun. At which point, we're returned to where this post began: place is more than just about plot, and setting evokes holistic meanings. But whether looked at from the perspective of setting-and-plot or setting-as-metaphor, it is only on another planet than our own that air (or its lack) would become so paramount. And the quest to maintain air, and the problem solving as a character figures out how to maintain it on a journey, is unique to a narrative set in space and empowered by the sun.

At which point, one could suggest that any number of science fiction films, set on any number of other worlds (real or imaginary), or on a spacecraft, might pose a similar problem. Last year's Gravity treats air with a similar reverence, for instance. However, there is a second feature of choosing Mars as the locale that constitutes the plot in a way unlike that of other zones of the solar system, near or far.

Communicative Delay

There is a notable turn in the plot of The Martian once Watney establishes two-way contact with NASA, at first painfully slowly via the Pioneer rover and then via a rudimentary email system. Just as no man (Watney included) is an island, so no place is ever defined alone, but by its relations with other places removed from it. In most stories, characters move from one place to another, or communicate remotely with different places, and the speed and efficiency of the network influences the way plot unfolds.

To give one example, my article touched on the functional importance of post to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. In this novel, post goes missing or takes several days to arrive and be replied to from different houses, which allows Austen to create a considerable sense of drama or plot twists, without these appearing to be contrived. They occur as a natural consequence of the delay inherent to post as a communicative system between distributed places.

A similar type of delay occurs in contact between Mars and Earth. Especially when just using the Pioneer rover's camera to type out arduously in hexadecimal, there's a real sense of frustration that communication is slow - and a corresponding degree of tension as Watney is still forced to take decisions on his own. However, unlike the post, and unlike pretty much any communicative system one could imagine in an Earthbound marooned story, the delay on Mars is specific and relatively small: 12 minutes. Significantly, as when Apollo 8 orbited the dark side the moon, so when Watney finally blasts off from Mars the hundreds of scientists on earth are left in radio silence, unable to prevent or influence a course of events that will have, by the time they hear about it 12 minutes later, already have happened. Despite the emphasis placed on teamwork in the second half of the film, at this climax Watney is very much still alone.

Of course, the audience - unlike NASA - do track what Watney and the astronauts on the orbiting rescue craft are doing in the moment of its happening. Without having timed it, I'd guess that these events take place more or less in a realtime of 12 minutes. The audience thus receives a cathartic effect both from the actual rescue of Watney that we witness live as it were, and the way our emotions are correlatively projected on screen by the cheering crowds who learn of it at the very end.

This dramatic irony is a direct product of the distance between Earth and Mars - that is to say, the specific setting of the latter. On our next closest neighbour, the Moon, there would be virtually no delay. On Jupiter, the fifty minute gap would prevent the synchronicity of narrative time and film time that we have in The Martian. Venus is a similar distance from Earth as Mars, but on a semi-molten world the whole premise of the film would be impossible in the first place. In terms of plotting tension, Mars inhabits the Goldilocks zone.


As an astute reader will have observed from that last paragraph, and elsewhere in this discussion, an argument about setting and narrative depends quite heavily upon the construction of counterfactuals: it has to be here because if it were there it would be different. Reductio ad absurdum. At the opposite end it also implies a restrictive view of the powers of the author: it has to be here because storytellers can't possibly find workarounds when setting elsewhere. Reductio onerum auctor.

Both of these are valid points. It's always possible to find alternative examples where a different setting could produce very similar incidents in the plot, via some imaginative authorial workarounds. Nevertheless, thinking through the possibilities afforded by place is valuable. When authors choose a particular setting (Mars), and a particular genre (as close to scientific realism as possible), this dictates that certain events and emphases will happen in that narrative that would not happen otherwise. The value of solar power, the lack of oxygen, a distance from earth that results in communicative delay are all features of the Martian environment. While no one of these is unique to this particular place, they combine uniquely to produce a particular situation for Watney, and a set of puzzles to "science the shit" out of. The placement of The Martian reveals these resources - physically at the disposal of the astronaut, semiotically at the disposal of the narrative - in a particularly prominent way.

Yet on this note we must return to where we began. The fascination of the story, and one might argue of science fiction or fictions-about-science in general, comes from the way the narrative invites us to assess the unknown aspect of the fictional setting (another world, a technological novum) against our own reality, to ponder about the differences and similarities, and the degree to which the human qualities with which we are familiar could apply or work in a new world setting or a different, futuristic time period. Again, one could argue in this vein that Mars does not really matter - that another world in a galaxy far far away would do just as well to invoke this speculation. Except The Martian has been released precisely at a time when, with the commercialisation of space flight and the landing of rovers such as Curiosity, the place that is the Red Planet seems imaginatively and physically closer than ever before.

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Posted by Alistair at 1:23 pm


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