“Satellite’s gone, way up to Mars, Soon it will be filled with parking cars”
-Lou Reed, Satellite of Love
In his lecture at the end of The Martian, Mark Watney tells a theatre full of aspiring, dreamy-eyed astronaut candidates,and the audience: “At some point, everything is going to go south on you… and you’re going to say: ‘this is how I end.’ Now you can either accept that or you can get to work. … You do the math. You solve one problem…Then you solve the next one. … And if you solve enough problems you get to come home.”
In other words: ‘science will save you’. Or, to follow the film’s overeager attempts to make ‘us’ identify with the Americans on the mission: ‘science will save us’.But will it?
I’d say that’s a rather questionable statement, and The Martian is nothing if not a piece of highly effective propagandathat wants to motivate us to put our fate and money into the hands of science, scientists and the ideology of technological progress and growth that they represent. But, one may ask, why are ‘we’ on Mars in the first place?
There seem to be basically two plausible reasons: one that points back to the actual moon landing in 1969, one that points forward to visions of the future as depicted in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, and none of them very good. The motivation behind the 1969 mission to the moon was propagandistic: it was a strategic move in the cold war of symbols and ideas, showing the commies who really had the longest trajectory. This project was clothed in a language of heroic pioneering, reverberating with the good old Western/American tradition of discovering and exploring, while conveniently remaining silent about the subsequent conquering and massacring. Neil Armstrong pointedly declared – definitely pre-scripted – “That’s a small step for a man, but a giant leap for mankind”, thereby making all humanity feel American. He also told what now looks like a blatant untruth. Looking at the course of history since then, we can most definitely say that no giant leap of any kind has occurred – we’re still just about muddling through, as before.
So, is the mission depicted in The Martian merely another chapter in the long list of attempts on the part of America to overwhelm the rest of the world with sheer awesomeness? It seems to me that the actual reason for Watney’s mission to Mars is closer in spirit to Interstellar than to Apollo 13 (though The Martian was obviously made by massive fans of the latter film). In Nolan’s 2014 sci-fi epic, life on earth is dying, and mankind has to flee to space to “find a new home”. Even though Mars isn’t far enough for Nolan, who wants us to migrate into different galaxies entirely, the idea that humanity has to move somewhere else once we’re through with Earth is driving many of the real-life fans of a human mission to Mars.
In 1979, the philosopher Hans Jonas proposed a new formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative to match the reality of an earth whose natural environment was threatened by human destruction: “Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life”. But you don’t have to know this pretty spot-on maxim in order to see the enormous, defeatist abdication of responsibility at work in
scientific escapism. We have a perfectly good planet at home, but instead of keeping it in habitable condition we waste our time and resources looking for another one. While movies like Interstellar and The Martian purport to exult in the heights that humanity or science can reach, they actually reduce us to a bunch of mean little parasites. The copious amounts of trash that the very first humans on Mars leave in their wake in The Martian do not seem to bode well for the red planet’s future.
The siren call of science and technology suggests that humans can, or even should, exist independently of nature. In the most extreme example of this situation I have witnessed on Earth, in modern-day middle- and upper-class Hong Kong, people spend most of their lives in an artificial, air-condition-generated climate, breathe air ‘purified’ of all bacteria, drink distilled water, move around through subterranean tunnels, disinfect absolutely everything, eat food imported from thousands of miles away and have their children raised by nannies, also imported from elsewhere.
Viewed through the lens of this ideology, life on Mars is well-nigh ideal, although I doubt that Jonas would let it qualify as ‘genuine human life’. It is possible only because it is not really life on Mars: it is life in an artificial, sterile environment created by and utterly dependent on technology. Science is therefore implicitly celebrated as a tool which enables humanity to emancipate itself from nature, and nature is conveniently reduced to an inessential commodity, which like all other goods can itself be fed into the economic machinery, discarded at will, or filled with garbage. From a capitalist standpoint, a Mars-like lifestyle also is highly desirable for a different reason: on Mars, nothing is free. Everything has to be imported or technologically produced, and therefore bought and sold:
from the very start, everything is part of the economic process. Ironically, there is no way out of capitalism on the red planet.
The Martian thus inadvertently exemplifies that far from saving us, science and the technology-dependent, trash-producing existence it enables and pushes us to lead could just as well be said to chain us ever more firmly to our own planet’s self-destructive economic system. It also shows that believing that science is ‘the answer’ is actually part of the problem. Notably, the film, and Watney, fail to learn anything from the astronaut’s near-death experience: it ends with him training up new astronauts for future space missions. Obviously, the disaster has not humbled Watney, who in spite of his own knowledge to the contrary, still believes that science will save us all.