Mark Watney knows how to do everything, including turn his rover into a super-car that he lives in for several weeks. (credit: Fox Movies)

The best part of The Martian isn't the breathtaking rescue, nor the awe-inspiring dust storm. It's watching Mark Watney grow potatoes. Instead of freaking out over his imminent doom, Mark calmly figures how to grow plants in the Martian regolith by fertilizing them with his own poop, and watering them with a DIY device that makes water by heating hydrogen from his leftover rocket fuel, and combining it with oxygen from the Hab environment.

Mark makes The Martian a classic of competence porn by always coming up with a hackerish solution to every problem, just like James Bond or Ellen Ripley with her exoskeleton in Aliens. And he's not the only competence porn star burning up our monitors right now. From Sherlock to The Americans, competence porn is filling us with the satisfaction that comes from watching people attack problems with brains and cunning rather than fists. Well, OK, there are some fists, too.

The birth of the trickster smartass

Clever characters who can weasel their way out of any situation go back to the earliest days of western literature, when ancient Greek hero Ulysses, star of the Odyssey, outsmarted the cyclops and figured out how to listen to the sirens' song without killing himself. In the east, the character Sun Wukong (AKA the Monkey King) plays a similar role, using his trickster cunning to keep the bad guys down. Indeed, most competence porn heroes have an element of the Monkey King's trickster ways—they may use logic to defeat death, but they'll tell a few jokes and pull a few beards along the way.

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