Turning inner space into outer space

October 3, 2015

Now that we've seen the movie, it's time to go to Mars

Poster for The Martian

The most popular movie this weekend would never have seen the light of day before the Internet.

Andy Weir, an author with a background in computer science, couldn’t get The Martian published the old-fashioned way, so he put it on his website instead — one chapter at a time.

The story involves an astronaut using physics, chemistry and biology to survive after being stranded on Mars, and Weir wanted the science to be as realistic as possible. He did a ton of research, but readers of his website also chimed in with corrections that made the story even more science-y.

The next step was to publish a Kindle version. Even though they could read the story for free on his website, 35,000 fans bought The Martian for 99 cents each and made it a best-seller.

That’s when a paper-and-ink publisher finally took notice. The book sold many more copies and is now a blockbuster starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott. Variety estimates the movie will make $50 million this weekend.

The movie doesn’t go into as much detail on how the main character is able to pull off scientific wonders such as creating water or growing food on a desolate planet. But it does maintain the can-do spirit that serves as inspiration regardless of whether you’re into gadgetry.

I found the book a bit tedious at times because we really are given full explanations for everything. I was tempted to skim, but didn’t want to miss anything important, so I kept forging ahead to find out he solved one crisis after another.

It’s too early to say at this point, but The Martian could be the science fiction movie that helps define this generation. Yes, there is human drama, but it is tempered with solid logic that is fitting for our times.

Compare this with 2001: A Space Odyssey. That movie was all about the wonder and mystery of space exploration. It seems we’ve moved past that and see space travel as simply a more complex version of driving a car or flying an airplane.

This becomes especially true now that we know so much about the destination. NASA and the European Space Agency have been bringing back ever more detailed extraterrestrial photos and analysis. We now know there is flowing water beneath the surface of Mars and have stunning photos to prove it.

As we come to understand the reality of Mars, Pluto or a passing comet named Philae, movies like The Martian seem less fictional and more aspirational.