I just came from The Martian, and I just have to say: Forget BB-8; I want a pet Sojourner! It's always been the cutest of our Mars rovers.I went out and saw The Martian yesterday, and wow, what a great movie. Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary writes that not only is it a great movie adaptation of a great book, it’s just as good a movie in its own right as The Martian is a good book. And it is.

It’s that rare gem of an adaptation that manages to keep most of the best parts of its source material while largely resisting the temptation to try to “punch it up.” There’s only one instance of overt Hollywood silliness that I noticed in the entire film—the way they rewrote the dramatic climax to be a little more cinematic.

(They didn’t change the nature of the ending, but they made it more spectacular. I personally thought it was a little excessive, but given the rest of the movie, I’m willing to let it slide. Heck, almost the entire movie Gravity was cinematic dramatic silliness, so I’ll let a couple minutes of that in The Martian skate by.)

The movie is missing a number of dramatic incidents from the book, especially in the last quarter or so, but that’s understandable—while they do share the same overall structure, movies have to be paced differently from books. Once you’ve got the way to the climax, you can’t keep slowing the story down again. Fortunately, they were still able to keep most of the best parts of the book—and the bits they cut out will make nice surprises for people who liked the movie enough to read the book afterward.

The movie is easily the best thing Ridley Scott has done in years. It has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and seems likely to be a strong contender for Best Picture this year—which could mark the first time a hard SF movie has won Best Picture. (Not that it’s terribly likely—even Gravity didn’t win when it was nominated—but you never know.) But there’s another “first” the movie fits into that is even more relevant for TeleRead.

I’ve already written that the book was a surprise self-publishing success story, but it’s not even just that it’s a movie based on a self-published book that’s so interesting. As the xkcd strip above points out, The Martian started out as free Internet fiction—like fanfic except entirely original—that Andy Weir wrote as a hobby, for egoboo from his fans. It’s the same sort of net fiction college students were writing twenty years ago. The only reason it was even self-published to Amazon in the first place was that Kindle-owning fans asked Weir to put it there so they could pay $1 not to have to sideload it themselves. Save that Fifty Shades of Grey actually did start out as fanfic, xkcd is right—they do have very similar origins. (In referring to The Martian as “a work of fiction about a well-known brand,” xkcd is probably calling it NASA fanfic, though it’s stretching a point pretty far for the sake of making a joke.)

I’m a little bemused that, if I’d just made a different decision a few years ago, I might have been one of those fans. I did read Weir’s webcomic book Cheshire Crossing and kind of liked it at the time. If I’d been even a little more interested, I might have ended up seeking out Weir’s website, reading his prose stories, and maybe learning about The Martian years before it went viral. Alas for what might have been.

Further interesting is that this plays into what Howard Lovy observes on his blog, concerning the recent spate of articles proclaiming that e-book sales are slipping while ignoring the independent publishing revolution. Lovy started a nanotech blog in 2001 out of frustration at not being able to cover “noncommercial” stories in the commercial nanotech magazine he edited. Before long, his blog was drawing more visits than the magazine as the early 2000s blogging revolution took off.

Blogs did not replace mainstream journalism, instead journalism absorbed blogging as its own. It’s how I can get away with having this conversation with you right now. Self-published e-books are the new blogs. They are just as easy to produce and represent an even broader variety of opinions, interests, quality, and accuracy. Bring them on. They don’t scare me. And big publishing companies, and the media that cover them, will eventually be forced to acknowledge that self-published e-books are a growing, important part of the actual book industry. My guess is that they will be absorbed and incorporated in the same way blogs were absorbed into what came next in journalism after the long, slow death of print newspapers.

And that brings us back to The Martian, which was not only self-published first, it originally wasn’t even published at all but posted free to the Internet. And now it’s a Ridley Scott movie with a 94% Tomatometer rating.

On a secondary topic of Teleread relevance, The Martian is not just the broadly touted “love letter to science” that Andy Weir wrote and Drew Goddard adapted. It’s also a love letter to digital media. When the rest of his crew leaves astronaut Mark Watney behind, they also leave behind their laptops and thumb drives containing all the music, movies, and television they brought with them to entertain them over the course of the mission—and now must entertain Watney, who doesn’t have anything else to keep him going while he attempts to eke out his survival on the harsh world. (The funny thing is, as much as Watney likes to complain about his crewmates’ taste in music or TV, it’s never really explained why he doesn’t just listen to whatever media he brought along instead…or for that matter, this being thirty years in the future, why they couldn’t just license and take the entire iTunes or Google Play Library along on their mission with them.)

This is mined for some great humor, as with this example of the time-honored “Gilligan Cut” TVTrope:

Teddy swiveled his chair and looked out the window to the sky beyond. Night was edging in. “What must it be like?” he pondered. “He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?”

He turned back to Venkat. “I wonder what he’s thinking right now.”

How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.

The same gag even makes it into the movie, though with a different punchline (but also predicated on his crewmates’ media). But the Aquaman joke does show up nonetheless in some of the movie’s promotional material. And the movie is able to make actual use of music that only gets mentioned by name in the book—and the age of that music is already prompting comparisons to how music from the same era was also used in Guardians of the Galaxy. (A soundtrack album should come out next month; meanwhile, here’s a Google Play playlist of the music—though beware, it does spoil a couple of really great musical jokes from the movie.)

It makes sense that when we finally do send astronauts to other planets, they won’t have the spare weight to take along their favorite media as physical artifacts. But digital versions are a natural fit. Although e-books are never mentioned directly in the book or the movie that I can recall (with the possible exception of how Watney is able to find a bit of technical information he needs stored on a crewmate’s laptop), you can bet they’re included. (Update: And as a commenter below reminds me, the novel records that one crewmember did bring along the complete works of Agatha Christie—and you can bet those would have been in e-book format.)

So, should you read the book or see the movie first? In a real sense, it doesn’t matter. They’re both excellent, and the one will serve to spoil the other in some ways, but each has enough things that the other doesn’t that there will still be enough left over to enjoy even if you know what’s going to happen—the movie’s amazing special effects and panoramic vistas of a Martian landscape, and the book’s considerably greater detail, additional incidents, and suspenseful mishaps that had to be cut for the cinematic adaptation.

But definitely see the movie while it’s still in theaters. And if you can physically tolerate 3D, see it that way if at all possible. This movie actually does make good use of three-dimensional effects, which is becoming increasingly common these days as directors get used to working with the technique.

I don’t know whether The Martian will spark new interest in real-life exploration of Mars. It seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened. Anyway, you never know—at least we can hope.


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