Once upon a time, it was enough for the hero of a science fiction book or movie to want to save a few people in a space ship from, well whatever was endangering them. That soon morphed into the whole space station, or town or city, needing rescue. Then the stakes got raised and the hero had to save the nation or space colony. That became the world/planet. Eventually the galaxy. Ultimately the entire universe. These days, the situation’s no better in fantasy where the rightful ruler’s life is at stake, oh and also those of the common folk, plus those of generations yet unborn, and that goes for every other country on the map adorning the frontispiece. No pressure or anything.
But not all SF or fantasy stories have to go that way. [Warning: mild spoilers to follow.] The Martian is a smashing success built upon a plot that turns on one astronaut’s efforts to rescue himself, and only himself, with no more than what he has on hand, which he must use to produce everything he needs for a long time. Yes, several others at a great distance try to come to his aid. And yet it remains a tale of one person’s survival against long odds. It helps that both the book by Andy Weir and the movie focus on a resourceful, likable character, one who is brave, smart, resourceful, and curious. These qualities are precisely what brought a character such as the protagonist to Mars in the first place. He needs every one of these characteristics if he is to prevail in his life-or-death struggle.
You see? You don’t have to raise the stakes to galaxy-spanning, or even global, levels. Not convinced? What if I told you that one person’s fight to survive with minimal resources in an incredibly hostile environment happens to be a plot that has been enthralling us since Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe in 1719?
Still not persuaded? Have you seen the You Tube video that opens with one turtle lying on its back, legs waving uselessly, and then another turtle comes along and manages to right it? How about the video in which a baby polar bear tumbles into the water and Mama Bear plunges in and rescues it? Have you noticed how many jillions of views those clips have racked up? Truly, your character doesn’t need to set out to do anything more than to save himself or herself or one other character, who doesn’t even need to be human.
Sounds easy enough to write a story like this, you say. Well, there is a trick to it. Namely, not just any protagonist will do. Like many newbies, I went through my share of whiny and worthless characters before some really terrific protagonists turned up at my casting call, ones who had what it takes to save themselves. Or to save others. The right stuff. Let ’em have at it.
I recently attended the Humans to Mars Summit, which is a gathering of folks from both NASA and the private sector who are all involved in one way or another in working toward the shared goal of sending human missions to explore Mars. These people are systematically working to develop six or so difficult pieces that will need to be combined–rocket launch and booster technology to get out of the gravity well; propulsion systems for the long journey; a deep space habitat; entry, descent, landing devices; surface habitats and rovers; and an ascent vehicle to lift off the Martian surface at the end of the mission. No, none of this will be easy, given that Mars is so much farther from the Earth than the Moon is. By way of comparison, the journey to Mars will take several months, whereas the trip from Earth to the Moon takes a few days. Nonetheless, I came away with so much more optimism for the endeavor than I’ve had in years.
Something that particularly struck me were the discussions of the reasons to send people, and not just robots, to explore Mars. There was the very sensible observation that people can do more science and better science than robotic devices by virtue of the fact that we have a much better ability to select more interesting rock specimens, etc. Of course, humans will be aided by robots in performing scientific missions. As to justification for going to Mars, apart from the advancement of science, I think Andy Weir said it best. He’s the author of The Martian. After twenty five years as a computer programmer, he understood the need to have a backup. Michael Swanwick also provided an astute observation having recently returned from China. The Chinese are not spending time on justifying their own space program as they moved forward with it. For them, exploration is simply something a great nation does.
The other thing that struck me was the idea that, in terms of timing, some of the children of the presenters could be the right age to be aboard that first or second Mars landing. During one of the Q & A sessions, the question was asked as to how many of the panelists would be OK with their own children going on a mission to Mars with the expectation of a return flight. The responses were decidedly mixed. It’s something to think about, isn’t it? How many of us would want close family members to accept those risks for that reward?