I recently saw The Martian at the cinema, after having thoroughly enjoyed the book. For me, the film didn’t disappoint, and afterwards I was eager to discuss it with friends. And of course, amidst the discussions of what was and wasn’t the same as in the book, and what we liked and didn’t like, came a topic that always arises when discussing a science fiction book or film these days: plausibility.
Science fiction authors know how important it is that the science behind their fictional worlds checks out, because if it doesn’t, they can be sure readers and audiences will complain about it. Every book I’ve read about writing sci-fi has stressed the importance of plausibility (books about writing fantasy have too, but never to the same extent).
The Martian, as a book, would have to be the most convincing and plausible science fiction story I’ve ever encountered. I was impressed and mesmerised, as I’m sure many others were, by the research Andy Weir put into it, and by the level of detail with which he conveyed this suspenseful survival story.
However, all the talk of plausibility drew my attention to something about my reactions as a reader that I’ve noticed many times before:
When it comes to the level of scientific plausibility in a story, I’m very easy to please.
As long as a story seems vaguely plausible to me (with my admittedly limited knowledge of science and space travel) I place far more importance on the emotions and wonder and suspense it provides.
I first noticed this when discussing the film Gravity with friends, and then later, the film Interstellar [warning: this post contains a few spoilers about both, if you haven’t seen them]. I loved those films, and was on a high when I emerged from the cinema after each one – how amazing, thrilling, and mind-boggling they’d been!
I soon found out not everyone was of the same opinion. Multiple friends complained to me, some going so far as to call the films terrible… these epic sci-fi blockbusters that I’d had trouble imagining anyone would not be awed by!
At the heart of all their complains was always this: plausibility.
“It’s so ridiculous, why would they all be reliant on corn? If they have the technology to send astronauts to colonise planets, surely they can solve their blight problem? Not to mention that crazy space station at the end and all the trippy stuff with the black hole…”
“Why would Sandra’s character even be up there? And Clooney would never be soaring around like that wasting all his fuel. And why on earth did Clooney have to martyr himself and drift off into space? There’s no gravity! And none of that flying from space station to space station stuff was even remotely plausible…”
And yes, I agreed with all these things. Even with my limited understandings of zero gravity, I remember thinking the Clooney martyrdom didn’t make sense, and the whole “we’ve only got corn left and it’s all dying” thing never came across to me as an end of the world scenario that might actually occur.
The point is, however, that none of it mattered to me. Even when friends pointed out gaping holes in the plots that I hadn’t noticed before… I simply didn’t care.
For me, the important thing was that each of those films was packed with amazing moments and situations I’d never seen on screen before… ones that filled me with awe and wonder and excitement. The wave planet, the time loss near the black hole, the traitorous would-be colonist on the ice planet, the space debris hitting the station, the terrifying tumbling through space and struggle to reach the various stations, Sandra Bullock’s feet touching the earth. I found these fascinating and gripping and moving. The moral and emotional struggles the characters faced had me thinking about them for hours afterwards.
Evidently, the amount of plausibility required to make a sci-fi story enjoyable differs from person to person. For me, it’s simply not that important… if it’s a good story, I’m willing to go with the flow. (Provided it’s not too ridiculous.)
I think the plausibility issues in fiction that usually annoy me are when characters make stupid or illogical decisions, or have illogical emotional reactions. I stop respecting the characters, and start to see the hand of the author using them as puppets to do whatever works for the plot. But scientific plausibility? Not so fussed.
The release of The Martian film has been quite a different experience to that of Gravity and Interstellar, with many readers, astronauts, and commentators worldwide praising the thoroughly researched story and its plausibility. However, if it turned out that all of it was completely implausible, unbelievable, and based on bad science? Yes, I’d definitely be disappointed, and I’d lose a lot of the respect I have for it. It is, after all, a story that places a lot of focus on the details and plausibility of a manned mission to Mars… but I’d still love it. Because it was for me, first and foremost, a great story.
But that’s just me.
How much plausibility do you like in your sci-fi?
Some interesting related links:
Adam Savage Interviews ‘The Martian’ Author Andy Weir (this interview is great!)
An Astronaut Fact-Checks Gravity