Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Mark Watney is Your New Hero

Mark Watney, from The Martian by Andy Weir, is your new hero. I mean that in two different ways. First, he's funny, charming, goofy, intelligent and resilient. He is in an impossible situation, trapped alone on Mars, and he approaches this impossibility with good humor and ingenuity. Right from his first entry in his log, you want Mark Watney to survive if for no other reason than each day he survives, means he writes another log for you to read. He is someone to root for, someone to look up to, and, perhaps most importantly, someone you absolutely want on your zombie apocalypse team.

But Watney is your new hero in another way. He represents a new category of hero; perhaps the first truly 21st century hero in entertainment and could represent another major step away from the chosen one bullshit that has so dominated so much our entertainment reading. I don't think author Andy Weir set out to revolutionize entertainment storytelling with The Martian. (I'm in a fight with him about one very conventional plot decision.) I think he had an idea for an exciting story and he developed a fantastic voice to tell it, but this particular story, of survival on Mars, with this particular voice, a slightly nerdier, more botanist-y Chris Hadfield-y, might be the first step to a less bullshit ridden and vastly more relevant hero.

The Chosen One, in whatever form that character takes (though, if we're looking at its pattern historically, usually a white dude, though sometimes shorter than average, with hairy feet), is bullshit. The world does not have a chosen one, it never has had a chosen one, and it never will have a chosen one; it will continue to have people, with varying abilities, in situations they can either survive or not. Said people will make decisions and they will be good decisions, bad decisions, or decisions whose goodness or badness is difficult to isolate. But just because The Chosen One isn't realistic doesn't mean it's bullshit in terms of entertainment. Realistic depictions of the world really isn't entertainment's job. The Chosen one is bullshit because it is also a dangerous belief structure responsible, in its various forms, for immeasurable past and present destruction.

Seeing the world through the chosen one narrative calcifies past actions and simplifies past decisions by removing them from their historical context, while ignoring the mistakes and flaws of those who have come to be understood as “chosen ones.” For example “The Founding Fathers” are revered by a certain section of political belief in pretty much the exact same way religious figures are revered. Obviously, this reverence downplays the substantial philosophical differences between the people grouped under that title, as well as their mistakes, racism, sexism, and (thank you Howard Zinn), appalling classism, but I think a specific example from the “removal from historical context” thing, in which the Chosen One perspective has won the debate, will best illustrate the utter bullshit of the Chosen One.

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Looked from the perspective that these words were written by real people solving a problem with the resources at hand it's pretty clear what was intended. The writers had just won a war, in large part, because the white men in their society all owned guns and they wanted to ensure that resource was available should future generations find themselves in the same problem. I'm looking at it and I see nothing about “self-defense,” “home defense,” or “recreation.” All I see, is the preservation of a particular solution to a particular problem. See, there's that “well regulated militia” part right there. But actions of the chosen one are timeless, they are forever, they are relevant no matter what. So from a “Chosen One” perspective, the whole “well regulated militia” thing is not the point; the point is that the Chosen Ones said we could have guns, so not only do we get to have guns, the having of guns is a fundamental expression of our connection to The Chosen Ones.

But the other thing Chosen One's do that might be even more destructive is they allow an abdication of responsibility. The Chosen One, let's everyone else off the hook. Sure, the Chosen One has a sidekick or two, and sure, in the storyline, at least if it's a modern storyline, there's probably an average joe or two who ends up playing a major role, but that particular sidekick and that particular average joe are just shades of the Chosen One. Everybody else can do whatever the fuck they want. Or, to tread on some slightly risky ground, “Don't worry, Jesus will get it in editing.” It's one thing to be self-interested or self-centered, or even selfish, but it is another thing entirely to live in a belief system where someone else, whether its a real person, a mythological person, or that strange mix of the two, is the only one responsible, and you can be whatever at no cost to anyone but yourself. This, of course, doesn't have to be a Make Loki Fix It cosmology. It can also be a Science Will Fix It cosmology or The Market Will Fix It cosmology or anything that gives you permission to drive to the store, turn up the heat, or take a bag. 

Andy Weir is not the first author to entertain the shit out of me while eschewing The Chosen One trope, but his character Watney takes another, perhaps equally important, step forward, in terms of the composition of our heroes; a step that draws from a fellow you may have heard of by the name of Asimov.

21st century problems are not vanquishable. For the most part, they are not evil that needs to be destroyed at all costs. They are the day-to-day scientific, technological, behavioral problems of maintaining a just society without destroying the planet in the process. Our defining conflicts are frustratingly un-narrative. What kind of villain, really, is a lobbyist for coal, oil, and Wall Street? And the hero who combats them? Our next hero will not stop Hitler, but solve our CO2 problem. Weir writes a character solving exactly those kinds of problems in a totally interesting way. Sure, Watney is on Mars, so the volume of his challenge is changed, but it's still all about capturing carbon dioxide, maintaining arable land, and staying a human fucking being when the only media you've got to occupy yourself is utter drivel. (OK, so maybe it is exactly like surviving on Earth.)

The closest characters I've read to Watney are from Asimov's Foundation Series. (Which was absolutely formative in my reading life, which is really why I'm mad at Weir for that celebration of recklessness he jammed into things, but I'm only mad because he reset the bar higher.) The heroes of this story; the psychohistorians and Salvor Hardin are all problem solvers whether on a grand scale, like navigating the collapse of a galactic civilization and coping with a “Chosen One” style dude fucking shit up or on a smaller scale of making sure no one blows up your tiny little outpost. Like Weir with Watney and all but one of the characters at NASA, Asimov made the methodical interesting. Or, rather, Weir and Asimov both acknowledged that, in service to important goals, the methodical is inherently interesting. And we should write more fiction about it.

Overall, The Martian is not a groundbreaking work of literature. The prose is solid but not beautiful. The voices of the different characters, especially those for whom English is a foreign language, are not precise. And Weir (Or perhaps an editor. Feels kinda like someone afraid the book was “too science-y” might suggest adding.) throws in a totally unnecessary trope of reward for recklessness, but if you know anything about the course of written expression (Thank you Steven Moore for this and this) you know that not every literary breakthrough happens in a groundbreaking work of literature. (And frankly, a lot of groundbreaking literature has some pretty appalling flaws, hello there repugnant misogyny in The Maltese Falcon.) Lots of first whatevers happened in books that are now known only for their first whatever. Writing evolves just like everything else and we should be grateful for every act of evolution no matter what else surrounds it. The late Lou Reed asked, “We can't be Shakespeare and we can't be Joyce so what the fuck is left?” and the answer is we can do our best with whatever is in our brains and, sure, it might not be Shakespeare or Joyce, but it might be the next step in our understanding of the hero.

Weir has finally pointed the glamor in the right direction. Sure, the grizzled loner with the chainsaw gets a lot of air time in the zombie apocalypse movie, but the real hero in that story is not the one who wields the chainsaw, but the one who figures out how to keep it going after you run out of gas, (sunflower oil is my best guess, at least in this gardening zone, with some kind of ethanol) it's the one who designs your home defenses, and the one who feeds you, and, if there is going to be any member of your party who ends up statue-worthy, it'll be the one who figures out how to brew the beer. At some point, entertainment fiction will begin showing the world what it has always needed to learn; that we need Hermione Granger a lot more than Harry Potter. Weir has pushed us towards that with Mark Watney and we should reward him for his evolution. (And by “reward” I mean, buy the shit out of his book. Here for example.)

No comments:

Post a Comment