The future according to Weir

Andy Weir

Positions: Author; software engineer for 25 years, until 2014, including stints with Sandia National Laboratories, AOL, Blizzard Game Studios, MobileIron
Notable: His novel “The Martian,” first written as a free blog then self-published in 2011 as an e-book, has sold 3 million copies. The film adaptation of “The Martian” grossed $630 million. His next novel “Artemis,” about a city on the moon, is scheduled to be published Nov. 14.
Age: 44
Residence: Mountain View, California
Education: Attended University of California, San Diego

Andy Weir’s lifelong love of space propelled him to begin writing “The Martian” as a free blog in 2009 and then as a novel. Weir made a fortune in 2013 when he sold the rights for his tale of a stranded astronaut to a publishing house and filmmakers who turned the story into a best-selling book and an Oscar-nominated movie. Weir has no intention of being a one-hit wonder. He’s following “The Martian” with a new science fiction novel due out in November, “Artemis,” and he’s trying to break into television, although CBS passed on the pilot of his space-themed drama “Mission Control.” Weir’s space fascination drives him to research and emphasize the science aspect of science fiction. That hard-science approach helped him craft a realistic survival story that made it easy to identify with a protagonist who, in Weir’s words, had “no real character flaws.” That said, Weir says to expect more character development in his next works. I interviewed Weir on the phone at his home in California about his new projects and views about colonizing Mars.


Building colonies on the moon and Mars

I would love to see the human race expand farther out. I think it’s a necessity for us. Not just a necessity really, but also it’s a fundamental drive that we have. One of the reasons the human race is top dog on this planet is because we do have that tendency to spread out and go just to see what’s over that next hill, and to colonize and move outward. That’s why we’re one of the few species on this planet that lives on all the continents. That’s how we do things, and that was an evolved advantage of ours. By spreading out and living all over the place, all over the whole planet, we made it so that we were immune to any localized disaster.

Space exploration and survival of the human species

I don’t see that as the argument for going to Mars. I hear it a lot and I admit even sometimes I say it, but there’s a slight distinction between what I say and the survival argument. I don’t believe it is critical to human survival that we go to Mars. I’m just saying that it is inevitable that we’ll go to Mars because of a survival instinct that is endemic to our species.

Scientific accuracy in “The Martian”

I’m a science dork myself, and so it always kind of screws my suspension of disbelief when there’s like, blatant scientific inaccuracies. I don’t mind if you have a warp drive, right? I’ll take that as a given, but if people are walking around on Mars without helmets, then I get really annoyed. So it’s weird the way a nerd’s mind works, but that’s how it is. So I set out to make as accurate a sci-fi story as I could, partially just to kind of satisfy my own suspension of disbelief issues, but also because I knew my readers at the time, who were just my kind of mailing list of readers, were all science dorks too so I was really writing it for them.

Advantage of researching the science

One thing it did was it added plot, which was really handy. Just by sitting down and doing the math and checking everything, I discovered problems for Mark [the stranded astronaut in the story] to run into that I never would have thought of just creatively. For instance, when I was saying like, “OK, what would it take for him to grow his potatoes on Mars? OK, well he needs this, he needs this, he needs this.” And I realized he wouldn’t have anywhere near enough water, so that’s where I came up with the whole subplot where he turns the fuel into water, and that was fun. It was exciting. I never would have even thought about him not having enough water if I hadn’t done the math on the science.

Finding scientific information for his story

At the time I wrote “The Martian,” I didn’t know anyone in aerospace at all. I do now, but back then, I didn’t know anyone so it was all just Google searches. That plus just a lifetime of being a space dork, you know? People are knowledgeable at their hobbies.

Goals as a science fiction writer

[To] entertain, always. Everything I write, I just want people to have fun when they’re reading it. I don’t have any agenda beyond that. I’m glad that “The Martian” was useful as an educational tool, and that kind of makes me warm and happy inside, but that wasn’t my objective when I wrote it. I’m never trying to change anyone’s mind on anything or preach any concepts or anything like that. There’s never a deeper meaning or a moral. I just want people to read the book and go, “That was cool.”

Hollywood ending of “The Martian” movie

I thought it was good. I thought it was great. I mean yeah, they differed on the ending a bit but they had to make it more dramatic. In my ending it was really more about … they very, very carefully planned out what they’re gonna do and then they did it and there were a few complications but for the most part it worked, and that’s a very kind of NASA way of doing this. But for a Hollywood ending you need a little more excitement. They send Lewis out to go rescue him instead of Beck, the EVA specialist because you’ve got Jessica Chastain in your cast, you want her to do more cool stuff if possible. Then having him come back to Earth, I think it’s important. In a movie, it’s easy to just cut forward in time eight months to then, “Oh yeah, now they’re back on Earth.” But in a book, it really was disconcerting. I did originally have an ending that showed them back on Earth, but it’s really disconcerting to have, the very last scene of the book there’s like this huge time cut, and then the last scene of the book and then it’s over. It just didn’t work, so I ended it right after he gets rescued, but yeah, I really liked the ending of the film.

A spaceship that can reach Mars

I honestly believe, and I know this is a political hurdle to overcome, I think really you need to have reactors. You need to have nuclear reactors to power your space vessel. I just don’t see a solar-powered ion drive having enough beef to it. Just the total area of solar power that you’d need is too much, but a nuclear reactor is the most weight-efficient method of bringing a whole butt load of energy with you. Both the Soviets and the U.S. space agency back during the space race worked on it and even put reactors into space, so it’s not unprecedented. You have to go to NASA and NASA has to go to Congress and everybody has to agree like, “OK, we’re gonna put a nuclear reactor in space.” And for a lot of people the word “nuclear” is just horrifying.

The future according to Weir