NASA just made a breakthrough announcement that Mars is home to free-flowing water. (Inverse called that shot four days ago, but you knew that already.) It’s fantastic news for not only the study of planetary sciences, but also the potential for future manned missions to the Red Planet. It’s not quite good news for the upcoming film The Martian, Ridley Scott’s now only borderline scientifically accurate tale of an astronaut struggling to survive after he gets left behind on Mars. Can a piece of science fiction survive as such when science fact overtakes it so swiftly?
In the case of The Martian, the answer is a resounding yes. A large chunk of the book and the movie deal with the main character, astronaut Mark Watney, devising his own survival. As the character played by Matt Damon in the movie puts it: “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.” He grows food in Martian soil; he excavates a radioisotope thermoelectric generator to stay warm in Mars’ -80 degrees C temperature; he basically MacGyvers his ass off.
The biggest challenge that Watney faces? You guessed it: creating water on a planet where there wasn’t supposed to be any. He nearly kills himself in the process of applying his chemistry know-how to slowly collect water, and yet today’s announcement all but renders that drama moot. He could’ve just taken a stroll to some recurring slope line to tap into Martian water and then call it a day.
The timing on this — the synchronicity of NASA and pop culture — is spooky, and a joy for a certain stripe of space fan. Could it also instantly date the movie? When I spoke to Weir and said it was unfortunate that the science in his book was continually being proven wrong, he was actually delighted. Even before today, NASA had been discovering that the quantities of water saturating the dirt on the planet was greater than believed when Weir started the book.
“It’s not unfortunate, I love it!” he told me. “People don’t realize how rapidly information comes in about Mars. They think like, ‘Oh Mars, it’s just this planet and we know all about it.’ No, no, the amount of information is incredible. Six years ago we didn’t know there was that much water on Mars. We wondered if there was that much water.”
Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences who was present at the announcement today, echoed Weir’s enthusiasm at the science of The Martian being invalidated. “[Andy] knew NASA would be making discoveries which might make his book a little obsolete. Which doesn’t matter if things do change and are obsolete because science fiction is enduring,” Green told me. “And what’s also great is it allows us to think about our culture, you know, what could happen in the future.”
This is why new scientific discoveries don’t ruin stories like The Martian. However true they claim to be, there’s still a delicate balance between science fiction and the science facts that have always trailed on its heels. An author afraid to be proven wrong would never bother to imagine anything. Weir knew that when he wrote the book, and Green knew that when he agreed to become the technical advisor on the movie. In the future we’ll watch and read The Martian like we watch 2001: A Space Odyssey or read Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles: for the pure sci-fi entertainment. A hundred years from now, it will be shown on movie nights in Mars colonies, where humans will chuckle and nod — not too bad, they’ll say, for a movie made in 2015.