UPDATED: The Martian: Allegory of Whose Lives Matter

[Spoiler Alert: This post begins at the end of Andy Weir’s The Martian. Those who have not read the novel or watched the film are duly warned. Also, profanity.]

UPDATE: In the wake of the Brock Turner rape case and verdict—in which the judge and Turner’s father are more concerned about Turner than his victim—I am moved to suggest that the examination of The Martian below serves as a powerful allegory for rape culture in the U.S. as a subset of how white male lives matter above everyone else’s. As well, this novel speaks to the Baylor University scandal.

See also: Wealthy Teen Nearly Experiences Consequence and College Basketball Star Heroically Overcomes Tragic Rape He Committed (when parody is true and thus less funny).


As I was reading Andy Weir’s The Martian, I had an increasingly uneasy feeling—but not the one I assume Weir intended.

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Weir’s novel gained popularity when made into a film starring Matt Damon.

The uneasiness came in part from my realization that I did not like the main character marooned on Mars, Mark Watney, growing to complete dislike when near the end as Watney is nerd-whining, he hopes that if he survives, his notoriety will finally snare him plenty of women.

But the greater part of the uneasiness came from not worrying about Watney’s suvival—or moving methodically from each intricately detailed disaster and then to the miraculous Watney solution (science!)—but from stepping back from the novel’s premise into the real world to ask, How much money do we spend to make clear whose lives matter in the U.S.?

And then the novel ends with a final log entry from Watney, an entry that confirms my uneasiness:

The cost of my survival must have been hundreds of millions of dollars. All to save one dorky botanist. Why bother?

Well, okay. I know the answer to that. Part of it might be what I represent: progress, science, and the interplanetary future we’ve dreamed of for century. But really, they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true. (pp. 368-369)

This motif of how much a society will spend to save a life has also been applied to Matt Damon, star of the film; it costs $200 billion to save him in The Martian and $1 trillion in all his movies. Appears in Hollywood, this is a bit of a joke.

Weir’s novel is mostly compelling for the quick read and science, but Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain does some of the same techniques, and much better. All in all, Weir’s novel is an interesting idea not fully formed as art—somewhat because of a lack of craft, but mostly because it appears Weir, Watney (and all the characters), and the intended audience suffer from a complete lack of critical awareness—punctuated by Watney’s hokey claim about our “basic human instinct to help each other out.”

The big problem with The Martian is what Robin James calls the “white interpretive horizon”; in the novel/film, that means Watney embodies all that is glorious about the Great White Male. What Watney represents is the vapid Ayn Rand rugged individual myth that is as thin a veil of white privilege as the rigged tarp ripped free when Watney launches away from Mars. And with a significant edit, we must confront that our “basic human instinct” is to help those who look like us—but not other people’s children.

The “white interpretive horizon” is so entrenched in popular culture that films such as Gravity contort the female lead into, well, the Great White Male. And of course, Hollywood can turn anyone into a hero (as long as he is white).

James builds to this conclusion, highlighting, I think, the essential failure of The Martian:

Both Trump’s conservativism and “Hello”’s liberalism expect everyone in the universe, and the universe itself, to reflect their interpretive horizon back to them because this horizon is “natural”; other horizons are disgusting or hilariously awful. This is no mere naturalistic fallacy, which assumes that natural means good. Shaped by the lived experience of white people and whiteness, these horizons are themselves white. Both fandoms treat whiteness as the natural foundation of their respective communities, and this common white supremacy is what makes liberal “Hello” fandom as dangerous as reactionary Trump fandom. We need to disrupt neoliberal white supremacist interpretive horizons in the same way #BlackLivesMatter interrupt Trump rallies.

Writing a year ago about the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice by a police officer, Charles Blow admits:

An extended video released last week of the shooting death of Tamir Rice in Cleveland appears to show an unconscionable level of human depravity on the part of the officer who shot him, a stunning disregard for the value of his life and a callousness toward the people who loved him.

And thus: “His black life didn’t seem to matter. But it does.”

As I finished The Martian, the Tamir Rice narrative continued, darker but just as predictable as the Watney story. Kirtsen West Savali reported:

Today, a grand jury in Cleveland, Ohio does what this system does. They put an exclamation point on the statement that black lives don’t matter. That black children do not matter. That being young, black and free is a crime punishable immediately by death.

For over a year, there has been a chorus of people demanding some semblance of justice for 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s family, without daring to acknowledge that impossible hope that flickers each time another black person falls victim to state-sanctioned terror.

Let’s set aside the thought experiment of a Great White Male marooned on Mars for a moment. I simply do not doubt we’d spend billions to save that astronaut as it plays out in the fictional world.

Instead, let’s try another thought experiment.

How much money are we willing to commit to saving one black male in any city across the U.S.?

But this isn’t even a thought experiment. We have already spoken.

The U.S. spends billions and billions to wage war, drop bombs from drones killing men, women, and children who are simply victims of geographical proximity (and are overwhelmingly brown and “not Christian”).

All the while the political and public will resists increasing minimum wage, welfare, or any use of funds that would prove that black and brown lives matter right here on our own fertile soil.

Blow ended his piece with: “The world must be made to acknowledge that Tamir Rice’s life mattered.”

And more, I’d argue—to prove lives matter by preventing the seemingly inevitable lives cut down literally by bullets but figuratively because Watney’s claim about our basic instinct is the stuff of the “white interpretive horizon”; in other words, bullshit.

See Also

What to do when you’re not the hero any more, Laurie Penny

The people who are upset that the faces of fiction are changing are right to worry. It’s a fundamental challenge to a worldview that’s been too comfortable for too long. The part of our cultural imagination that places white Western men at the centre of every story is the same part that legitimises racism and sexism. The part of our collective mythos that encourages every girl and brown boy to identify and empathise with white male heroes is the same part that reacts with rage when white boys are asked to imagine themselves in anyone else’s shoes.

4 comments

  1. Tree Hugging Humanist

    I hadn’t considered race when I watched the film, but you may have a point. I did think about the fact that as a country (or state, city, etc) we’ll spend tremendous amounts of money to save people in a disaster but when you mention something like food stamps or minimum wage, people go nuts because they don’t want to be giving others “hand outs”. What is the difference? Those things save lives too.

  2. Steven Deedon

    I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, but the next day had a hangover of sorts. I enjoyed it that it was a love song to science. Then I realized that it showed that a bunch of very smart, super-educated people, with a few outside-the-box creative types a among them, could solve the most difficult problems human may ever face. This is not the universe I live in.

  3. Pingback: What I’m reading 14 Dec 2015 through 31 Dec 2015 | Morgan's Log

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