The spirit of The Martian has struck a rousing chord with the American public: sending them to movie theaters in droves, gluing them to paperbacks, infusing new hunger for scientific pursuits, and even charging up NASA dreams of space exploration.
The film was pitched to execs as a “love letter to science,” and it is. It’s stirs within us dreams of how much we can achieve by learning and building upon our exciting expanse of scientific knowledge. But it also speaks to some other, more complicated emotions. What’s fueling Mark Whitney’s ingenuity is a driving, tenacious will to survive in the face of one of the most lonely circumstances a human could ever find themselves in.
Most humans who go to space probably experience some degree of loneliness and homesickness, but they are usually not alone. Our stories about space, however, tend to hover around circumstances where an astronaut finds himself alone in the most unkind environment possible, and must fight to survive. We earthbound humans know nothing of that, but we still relate to the idea of it in a profound way. We’ve never heard the still silence on Mars, or felt the sweat in a spacesuit, but we are used to degrees of loneliness, isolation, and alienation that don’t always reflect our circumstances. Space stories are a unique way to project and process some our of strange and wild feelings.
We can feel afloat and forgotten, locked in our own bubble, floating around in a strange place that could strangle us if we don’t keep vigilant. Communication can seem lost or mangled. Sometimes we look around us, and all we see is a harsh beauty, a cruel wonder.
And still, we want to triumph over what’s blocking our air, what’s keeping us tethered. We rig together a survival plan based on the resources we have, and try to grab the hand of any wayward rescue missions that may be passing by. Goals and tasks like the exhausting work Mark Whatney must do to up his odds of coming home can distract us from the vast and crushing space inside our own minds.
The only way humans have even found themselves in space in an extension of our desire to explore and strive for excellence. It’s a symbol of our thirst for more, our need to compete and prove something, and our hope that we can still find a way to survive as a species even if our planet gets destroyed. We’ve got a lust for our ego, for what we feel is our “self,” but we easily and can completely spread this self love out into our communities and “tribes.” We see vast groups of other humans as alien to us, but when we’re thinking more cosmically, we can extend that feeling of selfhood to the whole human race. Despite the inevitability of our own individual deaths, the legacy of humans continuing on, in all their horror and wonder, feels like a triumph to most of us.
For now, our bit of thirsty, teeming dirt is hardly anything, but it is home. We are a species that reaches out and projects. We ask to step a little further. We can hardly bear to see a stone without stacking it, and we can hardly bear a stack without an impulse to knock it over. Our desires almost always exceed the breadth of our real possibilities, but their insatiable hungers push the margins a little farther. We pulse out into space with a dream to somehow sustain our cocktail of chemicals and starving hearts, to stake our claim on some new patch of dirt we can someday feel homesick about.