Potatoes and Pirate-Ninjas: the reason you will read this book.*
I’m late to the Mark Watney appreciation society, since I only heard about this book as a result of the movie trailer. I guess at least I didn’t find out about the book after watching the movie and wondering if it was based on anything. The blurb essentially sums up the novel “Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first man to die there.” There you go, premise done.
To say I enjoyed this book is an understatement, as I usually hate novels that try to be hard sci-fi. I mean, if I want to read a physics text book I’ll grab the one on my shelf, not some of the “plausible” made up stuff that hurts my needless exposition aversion gland. So to find a hard sci-fi story that manages to be so entertaining was no small feat. The humour was a big part of the reason for the enjoyment. I felt that this addition was very important to not only the characterisation of Watney the space-nerd – because nerds are normally only funny to laugh at – but also in how too many novels would have taken the same premise far too seriously.
So now I’m looking forward to the movie. This should adapt very well to the big screen, and Matt Damon seems like a great choice for Watney. Hopefully Ridley Scott won’t go all Prometheus with The Martian and we’ll have a great adaptation.
Within science fiction and the wider society there is this idea that we’ll find aliens. I always find it funny when humans talk about discovering “other” intelligent life in the universe. Just a wee bit arrogant to consider ourselves intelligent. Yes, I do realise that I’m arguing that point using technology based on quantum mechanics, probably being read on a device that weighs less than 200g and fits in your pocket, linked by a distributed network, connected by orbital satellites. Science: it works….. bitches.
But I would continue my argument by saying that to some people that amazing interface of technology, that is allowing this blog post to be read around the world, might as well be explained as “magic, magic, magic, magic, magic, god did it.” I certainly couldn’t explain how quantum mechanics works, nor how it applies to communications technologies, let alone how it manages to stream all of my favourite porn media to my phone. Thus Arthur C Clarke’s third law – Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic – holds true for the vast majority of people on this planet.
Now the argument against Clarke’s third law is that technology isn’t magic. In fact, in the entire history of human civilisation, with all the things that have been attributed to magic, all the great mysteries of the universe, once investigated, have turned out to be not magic. But I’m talking about the knowledge gap between the average person and the specialist in the field who develops all this cutting edge stuff that allows other specialists to do cool stuff; like making a hoverboard. We are surrounded by everyday items that most of us would struggle to explain the concept of how they work – magnets, how do they work? – let alone understand the complexities involved – magnets, this is how they work.
Douglas Adams brilliantly satirised this idea in his novel Mostly Harmless. Arthur Dent crash lands on an alien planet where the local humanoid populace are rather backward in comparison to us humans. Arthur comes from a planet of television, cars, planes, computers: all sorts of neat stuff. But he doesn’t know how any of it works, nor how to go about reverse engineering any or it. So he becomes the sandwich maker.
Essentially, we point to all of our human achievements to show how smart we are, but in reality most of us haven’t the first clue about any of those achievements. We just aren’t as smart as we would like to think.
Now compare this to aliens. Humans are pretty proud of having gone to the moon, cashing in on all 12 of us who have done so, but to be visited by aliens requires interstellar travel. That requires technology we probably haven’t even dreamed of yet (possibly not, e.g. warp). An alien race that can do that is so far beyond human achievement and intelligence. Thus, I’m suggesting that even at our best, we would be babbling morons in comparison to an intelligent life-form that has managed interstellar travel.
Sure, the aliens that decide to cross interstellar space may be the Cleatus of their species. Their technology may actually have reached the point of sentience and doesn’t require anything of its “makers”. But think of how advanced such a species would be, not to mention how arrogant (rightly or wrongly). There is no reason for them to look upon Earth and see humans as intelligent (e.g. climate change and reality TV). There is also no reason to believe that we’d even notice these aliens. An intelligent life-form travels between star systems, has the technology for that not to have taken billions and billions of years, and some dude with an out of focus camera is going to be the only person to see them?
So I think that humans are rather egotistical to think of ourselves as intelligent life in the universe. I also think that it is arrogant to believe that an alien species would regard us as intelligent. I also think that we’d have little chance of encountering intelligent alien life unless they wanted to be encountered. This is just my view, but the main thing is, Neil DeGrasse Tyson agrees with me (or is that I agree with him?):
You may all think that I’m primarily a crime thriller kinda guy, a lot of the book reviews I post here are for crime, crime thrillers and thrillers. My current work in progress is also a crime thriller. So I clearly fit into a very neat little box created out of stacks of James Patterson releases for the month. But I like a lot of genres, I think most readers do, in fact I’d go as far as to say that all readers read more than one genre unless they are still battling with Where’s Waldo.
Needless to say, despite my current work – and several others in the pipeline – being crime thrillers, I have several outlines for stories in other genres. One of my first big ideas – quite literally, as I have a 50 page synopsis and several instalments plotted – was for a sci-fi story. Think Jack Reacher crossed with Jet Li (Did you know Jet Li is a real life hero?) inspired by Heinlein. Anyway, the main character, Caleb, is the last of his kind and is trying to save humans from themselves, whether that be leading a civil war, or deposing dictators at the various human colonies. Of course there have to be aliens in space.
The problem I’ve always had with aliens in books and movies is that they are too much like us. On Star Trek they could even pass for us, as long as they wore a headband. But it isn’t just that they look so much like us, why would aliens even think of us as awesome? Would humans be actually interesting to aliens? If aliens are watching our broadcasts you could just about guarantee that they don’t consider any of the life on this planet intelligent.
Alien: So you consider your race intelligent?
Human: Why yes.
Alien: Explain Glenn Beck.
Human: Okay, some of us aren’t as…
Alien: And you dig up stored gases to change your atmosphere so that it wrecks your climate.
Human: But we needed fuel for power. We’ve got solutions to that now.
Alien: One word: Politicians.
Human: Please don’t wipe out our planet!
So in my alien research for my novel/s I finally found inspiration. Who better to inspire me than Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins?*
See the rest of the discussion between Dawkins and DeGrasse here.
*Yes Carl Sagan would be inspirational too, but he isn’t in the video.