Wait, When Does The Martian Take Place, Anyway?

Author Andy Weir mostly got his facts right, but his hero’s contempt for disco doesn’t quite add up. An Air & Space investigation.

Damon and director Ridley Scott (far right) on location in Jordan (Aidan Monaghan:20th Century Fox).jpg
"The Martian" star Matt Damon and director Ridley Scott (far right) on location in Jordan.

Neither Andy Weir’s bestselling novel The Martian nor its new, Matt Damon-starring, Ridley Scott-directed film adaptation tell us when the story is set. The novel opens on “Sol 6,” the sixth day the crew of Ares 3—NASA’s third manned Mars expedition—spend on the Red Planet’s surface. The movie stars on Sol 18. But neither of them tells us what year it is.

Weir knows. He wrote software to calculate the trajectory his fictional spacecraft Hermes followed from Earth to Mars when he was working on his manuscript, before he had an agent or a publisher or a movie deal. He knows exactly what day the Ares 3 mission launched, what day it reached Mars, and what the calendars back on Earth read when Ares 3’s commander ordered the mission scrubbed and evacuated her crew, minus one, off-planet. 

But Weir isn’t telling. He wanted to save the date, as it were, for those dedicated enough to—like Mark Watney, his stranded botanist hero—puzzle it out. 

The key, he told Ars Technica’s Lee Hutchison last year, was Thanksgiving. Weir figured out a year in which it would make sense for astronauts to be trawling around on Mars in late November, so that he could justify their having brought along a stash of potatoes. He worked backwards from there.

Wait, When Does <em>The Martian</em> Take Place, Anyway?
Watney grows potatoes inside his habitat to subsist on until help arrives.

Reading the novel last spring and watching the movie last week, I assumed the story takes place in the 2030s, because that’s when NASA has said it wants to send a crew to Mars (although that mission is currently unfunded). But one of its running jokes—that all Watney has to while away the thousands of lonely hours when he isn’t working like an uncommonly intelligent dog to keep himself alive is the stash of music and TV shows from the 1970s that his commanding officer left behind—got me thinking: How would Mark Watney have developed such a profound aversion to disco, since he was probably born no earlier than 1990? Damon, Watney’s onscreen alter-ego, is 44.

Weir has been Tweeting a series of cartoons to promote the movie. (When Air & Space reached out to Weir to ask their origin, he told us the 20th Century Fox marketing department had commissioned them from Chris B. Murray, a Philadelphia-based artist.) One of them, “Watney’s History with Disco,” pictures two adults dancing to disco music while a cherubic Watney watches a shuttle launch on TV. 

A pair of relevant-to-this-inquiry dates:

Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Watney’s hometown of Chicago, Illinois: July 12, 1979. Disco records destroyed: Unknown, but estimated to be in the tens of thousands. Arrests: 39.

STS-1 launch of space shuttle Columbia: April 12, 1981. Disco records destroyed: N/A. Arrests: 0.

Let’s get this out of the way: This isn’t just a thin thread on which to hang a premise; it’s a freaking monofilament. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Hank Williams and Sam Cooke and Jimi Hendrix all died before I was born, and yet I know their music and have opinions about it. If I were marooned in a Mars habitat 140 million miles from everyone I love, and the only music I could play was by The Doors, a group whose lifetime overlapped not at all with my own, I would be alarmed by my musical options, among other things. (In the novel The Martian, Watney also kills time reading Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries, the first of which was published in 1920.)

But let us pretend that this comic strip that Weir Tweeted is part of his otherwise meticulous fictional chronology. This is the farthest thing from scientific. Let’s science the shit out of it anyway. 

I see three possibilities.

The Martian is set in 2035. The ‘lil Watney we see in that cartoon is watching the launch not of STS-1 in 1981, but STS-88 in 1998. That launch was suitably historic, marking the Shuttle’s first trip to the International Space Station. In this scenario, seven-year-old Watney watches the launch live on TV (at 3:35 a.m., presumably well past the bedtimes of tykes less likely to attain global fame for surviving alone on Mars) while his parents dance the wee hours away. 

While the man visible in the left side of the frame (Watney’s father?) is caparisoned in a leisure suit, there is little else to indicate the music he and the woman opposite him in the go-go boots (maybe she’s Watney’s free-spirited aunt, as he never mentions any siblings) are dancing to disco. The song that logged the most weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 in 1998, for whatever it’s worth, was Brandy’s “The Boy Is Mine,” which betrays little disco influence. 

Of course, that comic strip works just fine if Watney was born the year Matt Damon was, or the year Andy Weir was (1972). What if...

The Martian is set in 2015. In this timeline, NASA skipped the entire shuttle era and kept its eye firmly on other celestial bodies after the Apollo program ended. Even so The Martian as in the real world, NASA launched the Mars Pathfinder probe in late 1996, and the probe ceased transmitting data to Earth in 1997. The story finds NASA's director of Mars missions visiting Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena to consult with engineers who worked on Pathfinder. This thread still works if the story is set in 2035, though presumably most of the Pathfinder team would've retired by then. We only get a brief glimpse of the Pathfinder engineers in the movie in a medium shot; not enough to discern approximately how old they are.  

Extra-textual evidence: In Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s landmark film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was produced during the Apollo era and released 15 months before Neil Armstrong left the first boot prints on the moon, we’re already bound for Jupiter in 2001. Surely we could be on Ares 3, our third manned mission to Mars, by 2015, right?

Grab hold of something. I’m about to blow your mind.

The Martian is set in 1930. Way-alternate 1930. See, the Martians invaded Earth in 1898, the year H.G. Wells published his “scientific romance” The War of the Worlds. (True fact: In 117 years, it has never gone out-of-print.) They were felled, you’ll remember, by microbes against which their alien immune systems had no defense. Maybe this is why, by the time Ares 1 deposited the first humans on Mars in 1922—humankind having reverse-engineered the advanced Martian technology the invaders left behind to kickstart our own humble space program—the planet’s entire native population of squidlike creatures, despite their “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic,” had vanished, leaving behind no trace of their civilization. Wait, what did the crew of Ares 1 do that was so awful that we intentionally sent them to a planet we knew to be populated by a technologically superior and hostile race?

And how was Watney affected by the fact that Martians tried to take over Earth and succeeded in slaying millions of people when he was eight years old? A: Apparently, this traumatic experience instilled in Watney an abiding fear and loathing of... Martians? Nope, disco.

This theory is starting to break down. 

Oh, someone already figured it out, by the way—a reader named Kenny Ray, who took all of the astronomical clues Weir wove into his novel and e-mailed the author with his solution. In a Facebook post, Weir confirmed Ray’s calculations were correct—or at least that they jibed with his own. And in that post, Weir provides the answer, naming Ares 3’s launch date, landing-on-Mars date, and the date of Sol 6, when the adventure begins.

Dont click if you don't want to know.

Of course, if Weir likes the idea implied by those cartoons (which he tells us came from Fox’s marketing department)—that Watney is tormented by bad music that was hugely popular when he was a boy—he had no shortage of period-appropriate options.