An improved ending for The Martian

July 28, 2017
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(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

In this post from a couple years ago I discussed the unsatisfying end of The Martian. At the time, I wrote:

The ending is not terrible—at a technical level it’s somewhat satisfying (I’m not enough of a physicist to say more than that), but at the level of construction of a story arc, it didn’t really work for me.

Here’s what I think of the ending. The Martian is structured as a series of challenges: one at a time, there is a difficult or seemingly insurmountable problem that the character or characters solve, or try to solve, in some way. A lot of the fun comes when the solution of problem A leads to problem B later on. It’s an excellent metaphor for life (although not stated that way in the book; one of the strengths of The Martian is that the whole thing is played straight, so that the reader can draw the larger conclusions for him or herself).

OK, fine. So what I think is that Andy Weir, the author of The Martian, should’ve considered the ending of the book to be a challenge, not for his astronaut hero, but for himself: how to end the book in a satisfying way? It’s a challenge. A pure “win” for the hero would just feel too easy, but just leaving him on Mars or having him float off into space on his own, that’s just cheap pathos. And, given the structure of the book, an indeterminate ending would just be a cheat.

So how to do it? How to make an ending that works, on dramatic terms? I don’t know. I’m no novelist. All I do know is that, for me, the ending that Weir chose didn’t do the job. And I conjecture that had Weir framed it to himself as a problem to be solved with ingenuity, maybe he could’ve done it.

And, hey! I finally figured out how Weir could’ve done it. As I said, the challenge is to avoid the two easy outs of a pure win, in one direction, or a failure, on the other.

So here’s the solution:

Have the spaceman get rescued—by the way, it’s a sign of the weak characterization that, even though I read the book and saw the movie, I still can’t remember the main character’s name—but have that rescue require resources that would otherwise have been necessary for the space program, so that, as a result, future missions are canceled. The astronaut then for the rest of his life has to live with the fact that all his and his colleagues’ ingenuity did manage to save him, but at the cost of ending future manned exploration of space. Bittersweet.

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