The Martian, a science fiction story that currently exists in both novel and movie form, is a nerd wish-fulfillment fantasy wherein a planet full of admirers watches astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon in the film) succeed against impossible odds. He does this through a mix of intellect, nobility, and resourcefulness, with emphasis on the intellect. “Fear my botany powers!” he cries, using equations and poop packets to convert the inhospitable Aresian soil into a potato bed. At one point, wizardry (chemistry) enables him to literally piss rocket fuel.
Back on Earth, political tensions are suspended as the human race breathlessly tracks Watney’s progress; all the while, he remains cheerful and self-deprecating, often invoking his social woes. “The rover and trailer regulate their own temperatures just fine, but things weren’t hot enough in the bedroom. Story of my life,” he cracks, describing his Martian living quarters. And: “Seriously … no women in like, years. I don’t ask for much. Believe me, even back on Earth a botanist/mechanical engineer doesn’t exactly have ladies lined up at the door.” Plus: “If I get back to Earth, I’ll be famous, right? A fearless astronaut who beat all the odds, right? I bet women like that.” As an astronaut called upon to continually demonstrate his genius, pluck, and unquenchable humanity on a huge screen, he is essentially guaranteed worship and attention from all Earth-born ladies (and dudes) until the solar system explodes. Hey, jerks from high school. How do you like me now?
The Martian glorifies a specifically male nerdery, one whose values sync up with those of traditional masculinity: physical endurance, survival in a hostile landscape, honor, adulation. Nerddom, which shelters all types, has become one of the last refuges for OG manhood. An ancient strain of mind/body dualism characterizes the brain as male and the flesh as female; Andy Weir’s nerd fantasy taps right into it. In The Martian, “all the best guys at JPL” put their heads together to steer Watney through his intellectual obstacle course. Here’s crewmate Vogel getting the update on his kids from his wife: “The children are fine. Eliza has a crush on a new boy in her class, and Victor has been named goalkeeper for his high school’s team.” The NASA leaders are all men. The PR specialist—rendered in four adjectival strokes: “confident, high-ranking, beautiful, and universally respected”—is a woman. Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain in the movie) is essentially a man in a woman suit.
As for Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), the second lady in the Ares 3 crew, we learn two things right off the bat: She is great at computers, and she is hot. Watney does her the service of informing her about her attractiveness in a letter. Then Johansson gets together with the ship’s doctor. From her arc, we can deduce that, while most women are superficial dumb-dumbs who ignore brilliant geeks like Watney, the smart ones are also gorgeous. Plus, gals are there for the datin’.
As marginalized people, nerds theoretically should have a special sympathy for women. I bet that Weir (who went on the Nerdette podcast and seemed like a delightful person) would call himself a feminist. His missteps are small, and his heart appears to be in the right place. But something in me wants to push back against a good-intentioned faux-feminism that seems prevalent in a lot of lovely and progressive nerd-guys I know. It’s a feminism that congratulates Weir for making Commander Lewis a lady, without considering that the book’s ideal woman remains an awestruck babe. When this feminism fantasizes about “the green-skinned yet beautiful queen of Mars” who wants to “learn more about this Earth thing called ‘lovemaking,’ ” I get a sinking feeling that this feminism would, in the end, prefer a Mars sex queen to a human woman.
What I want from my nerdboys, as a nerdgirl, is not to feel like they are magnanimously settling for real women because the sex queens and status symbols are unavailable. Reading The Martian, I wished for a version of nerd wish-fulfillment that envisioned something better for us ladies—or simply imagined us as fully vested fellow nerds.