Making the Best of a Bad Situation

All hope lost?  Perhaps not.  This edition published by Sphere Books 1978.  Cover art by Peter Elson.

All hope lost? Perhaps not. This edition published by Sphere Books 1978. Cover art by Peter Elson.

The thought of being marooned in some desolate, remote place, far from any likely rescue, brings mixed emotions.  On the one hand, there is a sense of being lost and, quite possibly, hopeless.  But there is still the challenge of trying to survive in what may be a hostile environment.

The cinema is particularly well-suited to bringing out such sensations to those of us who would much rather experience them by proxy.  The 1969 film Marooned showed three astronauts trapped in an Apollo spacecraft orbiting the Earth after their retro rockets failed to fire, with insufficient fuel to either initiate re-entry or to return to the space station they have just left, and with only a very limited remaining air supply.  So near to home, and yet so far.

But in the worlds of science fiction, the idea of being marooned on a distant world can bring out the full complexities of possible survival, much as the all-time classic in the genre of surviving against the odds – Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719 – did in the case of its main character shipwrecked on an uninhabited island off the coast of South America some three centuries ago.  Its inspiration for the 1964 film Robinson Crusoe on Mars was well-timed for those of us growing up at that time.  With hindsight, the techniques for survival in that movie may not have been particularly realistic, but it was an imaginative take on the original story.

Around the same time, James Blish’s 1967 science fiction novel Welcome to Mars gave a similar flavour of being marooned on the Red Planet.  The hero of the story, Dolph Haertel, invents an anti-gravity drive which enables him to reach Mars quickly.  That may initially bring back memories of the anti-gravity material used to launch a spacecraft in HG Well’s The First Men in the Moon from 1901, but the invention in Blish’s story is based on ideas about Einstein’s theory of relativity as understood at the time in the mid-1960s – although gravity was a condition of space rather than a force like electricity, it might well have polarity and could therefore be manipulated.  Since gravity was a weak field to begin with, “only a little effort should be required to produce desirable vector effects.”

Add to that the traditional concept of the lone genius who makes a discovery that eludes everyone else, and you have the setting for the novel.  Blish used the Haertel Drive as a method of interstellar propulsion in other stories but, for present purposes, it ends up stranding Haertel himself on Mars when a key component in his spacecraft breaks down.  Although written before the author was aware of the Mariner 4 evidence of the Martian surface, we see a now familiar hostile and freezing environment, though with primitive life-forms which save the day for our castaway, who turns out to be astonishingly inventive in finding ways to survive when the odds seem stacked against him.

On the other hand, Ridley Scott’s 2015 film The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s book of the same name, provides some updated realism on this score.  You can feel the despair and determination of the lone survivor on the planet’s surface, alongside the ingenuity of those attempting to rescue him.

Where there is no possibility of rescue, though, the situation could be different – with every effort defeated, it could make for a quite depressing story.  Even so, Arthur C Clarke created a minor masterpiece with his 1970 short story Transit of Earth.  An astronaut is marooned on Mars and cannot be rescued.  He seems resigned to his fate, but still finds purpose in life through making some final scientific observations in the time that is left to him.

And there’s the positive message coming out of all this.  Even when things are just about as bad as they can get, and there appears to be little hope, human beings will still try to make the best of it.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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