Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Interview: Andy Weir

Andy Weir is the author of the best-selling science fiction novel The Martian, about an astronaut stranded on Mars who must use his knowledge of science to survive long enough to be rescued. The story began as a free serial on Andy’s website, and when he uploaded the book to Amazon.com, The Martian quickly shot up the charts, where it attracted the interest of an editor from Crown. The Martian is now available in bookstores everywhere, and a big budget movie adaptation came out in theaters October 2.

This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.

Let’s start by having you tell us about how you got interested in reading science fiction.

I think I was doomed to be a nerd, because my father is a particle physicist and my mother was an electrical engineer. My dad had an infinite supply of 1950s and ’60s science fiction novels. It’s interesting, in that the SF that I read when I was growing up was one generation off of what you’d expect for my age. I grew up reading baby-boomer SF. My holy trinity of authors is Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein.

Speaking of Heinlein, I was wondering if you had ever read his Tunnel in the Sky.

That’s one of my favorite Heinlein novels. I love a good man-versus-nature story.

It seems like it would be your sort of thing.

It’s a fantastic novel. I don’t know when it was written—in the early 1950s, maybe—and the main character of that story is black. In that era, if he’d overtly stated it, then the book would’ve been classified . . . “Oh, we’ll just sell it to black people.” And he didn’t want that, so he was just really subtle, but he dropped three or four clues in the book that you could back-calculate. He was pretty forward-thinking for his time, and managed to outmaneuver the publishers and marketers.

For people who haven’t read it, the premise is that there are these kids sent to survive for a week on an alien planet, and then there’s a disaster and they end up getting stranded there. How did you start writing your own fiction?

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing silly fiction. I wrote short stories when I was twelve. I can’t think of a specific time when I “got my start” on that.

In college you wrote your first novel, right?

If you can call it that. It was pretty bad, but I think everyone’s first novel is pretty bad. It was a dystopian future thing and . . . it’s embarrassing. The good news is I wrote it before the days of the internet, so I never had the opportunity to post it online. Which means it’s not out there for anyone to find.

Talk about what happened to you after college, and what happened with your writing.

I went to college to be a software engineer, and I’ve spent twenty-five years as a computer programmer. I just quite my day job about a year and a half ago to go full time on the writing, once it was clear that The Martian could financially support me. I wasn’t willing to take that kind of financial risk of being a full time writer. It’s a pretty risky proposition. I was working at AOL around 1999 and they laid me off, along with 800 other people, when they merged with Netscape. I had a really good severance package, plus I had a lot of stock options. When you’re laid off, you have sixty days to sell your stock options or they just disappear. So I was forced to sell them at what turned out to be AOL’s all-time peak.

So I ended up with a bunch of money—I assure you I would not have made such a wise financial decision left to my own devices—and I could go two years without having to work, so I took my shot at being a full time writer. I wrote another book, my second book, called Theft of Pride, and it was a space opera kind of book: Awesome alien races that all, for some reason, are comfortable in each other’s atmospheres, and the Star Trek, Star Wars kind of feel. It was about a thief trying to steal a national treasure of this planet. I thought the story was fairly solid, but the wordsmithing, the prose, the skill of writing—or lack thereof—was the problem. It was certainly a lot better than my first effort. I tried to get it published, and I have the standard sob story that every struggling author has: I just couldn’t get any traction; no one was interested. The nice agents were the ones who sent me rejection letters. After three years I gave up, and I went back to computer programming, which wasn’t a huge defeat for me, because I like programming. It wasn’t like I was some poor cubicle dweller. It’s a challenging career, it keeps me mentally active. I get along great with my co-workers anywhere I’ve ever worked.

I know that you worked at Blizzard; was that at that time?

I worked at Blizzard before AOL, in 1995. I was one of the programmers on Warcraft 2.

I was curious, because I played a lot of Warcraft 2 back in the day.

I’m glad I could help burn thousands of hours of your life that otherwise might have been productive.

When I was in college, my roommate got addicted to playing on my computer, and one night he was supposed to go out on a date and I went out and came back, and I could hear “We move! We move! Yes sir! We move!” And I was like, “He’s back early; I guess the date didn’t last very long.” But he had actually brought the girl back to our room to watch him play Warcraft 2.

So that can go one of two ways: If she’s into Warcraft, too, that can go really well. If not, that’s the worst date in history.

I think it was more of the latter.

That’s unfortunate.

I was just curious if you had any stories from your time at Blizzard, or any memories that stand out.

Blizzard was one of the most unpleasant jobs I ever had. Most of the people were cool; it’s just the workload was so intense. The software industry has really calmed down, but back in the early to mid-’90s, software engineers were mistreated. At Blizzard, if you were awake, you were at work. I remember working sixteen hours a day, every day, and on weekends and holidays. I remember I had this reunion planned with my friends, we were all going to get together and meet up in San Diego. Blizzard’s office was in Irvine, so it’s a decent distance away. It was just a Saturday and Sunday; I told the people at Blizzard a month in advance and I got a lot of shit; people were angry at me. And while I was there, they called me many times with questions. The product we made was really good, and I’m proud to have been a part of it, but working at Blizzard was miserable. Working at any game company or start-up—Blizzard was a start-up at that time—was miserable, so it’s not Blizzard, that’s just how the industry was at the time.

Had you gotten into that because you were passionate about games? Did that affect how you felt about games?

I wasn’t like your former roommate, but the idea of being a game programmer was exciting, being fresh out of college and in my twenties. I burnt out at Blizzard. Nowadays I’m not much of a gamer. I guess I never really was.

So you were talking about how you worked for many years as a software programmer, and then you got into self-publishing. Tell us about how that started.

After three years of not being able to get my book published, I went back into the industry and started working as a software engineer. Around this time is when the internet started to become a thing; it had been around, but now it was fairly easy to make your own website. So I made a webpage; I made web comics, short stories, and serials—just posted a chapter here and there of a continuing storyline. The Martian was just one of those serials.

Now there’s a huge community of self-publishing people, but back then were you doing it on your own? Were you networking with other people?

I was on my own. I wouldn’t call myself a self-publisher at that point. I was really more of a blogger. I didn’t have any intention of making money; it was a hobby. Everything I posted was for free, there wasn’t even a registration on my site. It’s still there. You can go and read most of my stuff. There were no advertisements, no donation button—nothing. What I really wanted to get out of it was an audience, and I think that’s pretty common among writers. Our main motivation is to know that people are reading your stuff. I’m sure that’s one of your motivations with your podcast, right?

Absolutely. But as I understand it, one of the things that first took off for you was this short story you wrote called “The Egg.” Tell us how that came about.

That was my first success in narrative fiction; my web comic, called Casey and Andy, got fairly popular. But “The Egg” was just a story that I banged out in forty minutes and posted to my site, just like many other short stories I do, and I didn’t think much of it. But it got really popular, and I think the reason is that it’s got a cool plot twist at the end. Second off, the whole thing is a thousand words long—about a page and a half—and that’s a good digestible size for the modern internet audience; about as much attention span as people are willing to put into a link their friends randomly send them. It’s also small enough that people could copy and paste the entire content into their blog. It helped a lot because I have a mailing list, so people can sign up and I would send updates whenever I posted new content to my site, and over ten years I slowly accumulated readers. Then some of them became permanent, regular readers.

This is interesting, because my girlfriend is writing what they call flash fiction, these really short, thousand-word stories, and she’s always agonizing over where to send them or what to do with them. I’ve been telling her, “Don’t worry about it; nobody gets famous writing thousand-word stories.” But then I read your story. Is that something you’d recommend writers do? Or is that so much of a fluke it’s not a really good way of directing your energy?

I think it was a fluke, although what I would recommend to any writer is to write whatever you’re willing to write. The hardest thing for a writer is buckling down and doing the work, so whatever it is that you are passionate about and inspires enough to do the work on, that’s what you should write about, because it will probably be good. When you’re talking about a really short style, like a thousand words, I don’t know that many people who have gotten popular off of it. And neither did I, by the way. It’s really The Martian that put me into the publishing world, not “The Egg.” “The Egg” became like a meme for a while, and got me a lot of regular readers and it was great, but it wasn’t the launching-off point for me.

I should point out that self-published novellas are increasingly becoming a good way of breaking in, because self-pubbing now is digital, so you don’t need a 250-page book, you can say, “Here’s a fifty-page novella, and I don’t charge very much for it.” A good example of that is Hugh Howey; the book that we call Wool is actually five different novellas that he released at different times.

It seems like the audience you built up from writing “The Egg” played an integral role in the composition of The Martian.

It did and it didn’t. I had a lot of those regular readers already, but I did build up more readers from “The Egg,” and that core group of readers is what started the word of mouth on The Martian. I’m sure it mattered; I honestly don’t know what would’ve happened in a parallel universe where I wrote The Martian but never wrote “The Egg.”

You had this idea that I think went back to 2002 about a guy stranded on Mars, and so you start serializing it on your website, and then you start getting all this feedback from chemists and physicists. I think that’s interesting.

That’s true, and getting that feedback was great because they would tell me places where I was wrong and I would go correct it. For the record, I first got the idea around 2005 and I posted the first chapter in 2009. The scientists that I had as regular readers . . . I didn’t pick them up from “The Egg.” I actually picked them up mostly from a web comic I had written starting around 2000 called Casey and Andy. I made two or three scripts a week, every week, for years; the last one was number 666. And it was a science dork-based comic. The plots all revolved around these two mad scientists.

That’s interesting, because another thing that really strikes me about The Martian is that you expected this to only appeal to a niche audience of hardcore science geeks.

Yes.

I think you can really see that in the book; it’s just so heavy on the science. But it turns out it has this mass appeal. Has that renewed your faith in humanity, that so many people are interested?

I don’t define humanity’s value by their interest in science, but it did baffle me that so many people took an interest. I made the main character, Mark Watney, a smart-ass and flippant. He cracks a lot of jokes. I knew he was going to be explaining a lot of science to the readers, and if I didn’t want it to read like a Wikipedia article, I needed to present it in a funny way. And people really liked the humor in the book. For the folks who aren’t that interested in science, I’ve learned since then that when they’re reading a book they skim over the parts where it’s describing the science in detail. Which is actually pretty cool, because it means that some point earlier in the book I must have established a level of trust with the reader; the reader just assumes the stuff I’m telling them is accurate and factual. That’s a big deal for a writer, to get the readers’ trust to that level. I accidentally bungled into mass appeal by making a smart-ass character that’s an everyman.

This book does have a tremendous amount of authority to it, even to someone like me. It feels very real. But I’ve heard that even people like Chris Hadfield, commander of the International Space Station, says this feels right to himthe science and the way the astronauts and NASA administrators act. You somehow depicted it all accurately.

Thanks. I put a huge amount of work into the science and I enjoy research and I’m a space nerd, so that stuff’s really easy for me. When it comes to personalities, I didn’t know anyone in aerospace at the time I wrote it, so I was just guessing. For astronauts, I based it off of the personalities of astronauts that I’d seen in documentaries and interviews. As for NASA’s administration and how people at NASA interact . . . Earlier in life, I had worked for Sandia National Labs, in Livermore. I started when I was fifteen, basically lab assistant stuff, and it is a large, federally funded research facility, so I projected that onto NASA. And it turns out that was right; when I went to Johnson Space Center, they gave me a bunch of tours—and it was awesome, one of the best weeks of my life. The director, Dr. Ellen Ochoa, a four-time astronaut, said, “For every NASA character that you have in the book, I could point to someone in the real organization and say ‘that guy has that exact personality.’”

What other feedback are you getting? Do you get letters from kids saying they want to be astronauts now? Or are there fan letters that really strike you?

Lots of fan mail from kids, teens, and adults alike; the ones I really like start with, “I don’t usually read/like science fiction, but . . .” That makes me feel good, because that means I’m snagging people who generally aren’t interested in science at all. And one thing I thought was super sweet: A woman sent me a picture of her daughter dressed up in astronaut clothes and said that she’s going to be Commander Lewis for Halloween. This was before the movie, like last year. I wasn’t making any sort of femininist statement; I arbitrarily decided that the commander of the mission would be a woman, but if it inspires little girls, then that’s pretty cool.

There was a video I saw online of Elon Musk critiquing The Martian and then it was intercut with you responding to it. Could you tell us about that?

His original comments were not directed at me, he was just answering questions to an interviewer. They just had me respond to his comments.

One of his comments was that he thought it might make people scared to go to Mars; he thought maybe you should’ve written a book where they have a nice vacation on Mars.

I don’t think that would be quite as popular. I don’t think anybody’s under the illusion that going to Mars would be safe. People understand that space travel, and especially something like an interplanetary mission in the early days, is going to be inherently dangerous.

And there are a lot of dangers to Mars that you had trouble dealing with in the book, right? Like the radiation. Do you want to talk about some of the criticisms of the book? What do you think have been some of the more valid criticisms?

The biggest deviance from reality in the book is the force of the sandstorm. At the beginning of the novel, our protagonist is stranded as a result of a sandstorm on Mars that damaged their equipment and forced them to abort. In reality, Mars’ atmosphere is so thin that, while it does get 150 kilometer an hour winds, the inertia of that wind is too little to do anything. It would feel like a gentle breeze on Earth. I knew that at the time I wrote the story, and I did have an alternate beginning in mind where they do a MAV engine test and it causes a problem: They start to leak fuel and they have to launch before their fuel leaks out. It would be completely accurate to physics, but it wasn’t nearly as exciting. And this is a man-versus-nature story, so I wanted nature to get the first punch. Long after the book came out and the movie was in post-production, I talked to a guy at NASA and he said, “Most people don’t know this, but Mars has lightning.” And I was like, “Ah, a lightning strike! That could’ve been pretty cool.”

The other thing I did was with radiation; I hand-waved around it. A lot of people critique the story by saying, “He didn’t account for radiation.” I disagree. I accounted for it by inventing a bullshit technology. So within the context of the book, at some point between now and the twenty years from now when that Mars mission takes place, they have invented a material that’s thin, flexible, and has a dramatic radiation reduction. Nothing remotely like it exists, unlike the other technologies shown in the book, which are either real-world tech or reasonable and expected improvements. Like the ion engine Hermes has are more powerful than have ever been made, but we know how to do it: just make them bigger.

Now maybe some kid will invent it because he read about it in The Martian.

Good. I’m sure there’s a lot more than some kid working on it; radiation is one of the biggest problems for interplanetary travel. The only solution they have requires a whole lot of mass; water is actually pretty good at blocking radiation, so if you have ten centimeters of water between you and the outside, that’s pretty good. So you say, “Store the crew’s water supply in the hull.” The problem is that’s way more water than the crew needs, so it just ends up being dead weight, and it’s an enormous amount of mass. You’d have more mass dedicated to radiation shielding than you have dedicated to the rest of the ship.

Fortunately, it’s come out that there’s lots of water on Mars, so . . .

There is. The biggest problem is while you’re on your way to Mars and back. Most of the problems come from GCRs, which stands for Galactic Cosmic Rays, which is a really bad name because they’re not cosmic rays; they’re these relativistic moving particles that are generated by the galaxy and they’re passing through our solar system. The sun is easy to block—you can just put something between you and the sun—but the GCRs come from all directions uniformly. When you’re on Mars, Mars itself is blocking half of the GCRs; the second huge advantage is you set up your base and just cover it with a meter of Martian soil. It protects you from radiation just fine. In space, they’re spending months in a spacecraft and it’s being bombarded with these high-energy particles, and the crew’s cancer risk would just go up and up.

What do you think about the way previous science fiction novels have dealt with Mars? Are there any you’re particularly fond of?

Ben Bova’s Mars. I liked it because it had a lot of accurate science in it; it had some hand-wavy stuff, too, but—and I won’t give away the twist—all the astronauts start to get sick and all the people on the surface are just getting sicker and they’re wondering if they caught some pathogen native to Mars. I thought the resolution to that plot was very clever.

That’s a terrific book. I was going to recommend it if you hadn’t read it. It has the most science of any science fiction novel about Mars that I’ve read. How about movies about Mars? I thought it was interesting: For the The Martian movie, they filmed it at a particular location, and the Wikipedia article mentioned that three previous Mars movies had been filmed in the same location. And I don’t think any of them broke twenty-five percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

The location is Wadi Rum, a desert in Jordan. I know that they filmed Lawrence of Arabia there. What were the other Mars movies?

Red Planet, Mission to Mars, and Journey to Mars.

It really looks like Mars, so it’s a great location. When you talk about Mars movies, there’s what they call “The Mars Curse” in the movie industry; that was actually something that was going to, potentially, be a problem in getting The Martian greenlighted. The last significant commercial success that took place on Mars was Total Recall with Arnold Schwarzenegger. I might be wrong; there may be something in the middle there. And it’s also that some things people don’t like were also commercial successes. I actually liked Mission to Mars, with Gary Sinise. Didn’t like the one with Val Kilmer as much. I think Mars is a big topic. The Martian, John Carter, Mars Needs Moms, and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians all took place on Mars, but those movies are not, in any way, similar. I think comparing movies that take place on Mars is not that productive. It’s like saying Cloverfield took place in New York City and so does the TV show Friends; let’s compare them.

My issue with Red Planet and Mission to Mars is that the astronauts don’t seem to act like astronauts; they seem to act like high school students, who are very angry and not in control of their emotions.

Yeah, that’s one of the most unrealistic things in my opinion, when astronauts are incapable of working together as a team or respecting their commander’s decisions, because in real life that does not happen. Sometimes the astronauts will get a little testy with each other on long-duration ISS stays, a little bit of cabin fever, but nothing like the complete acrimonious stuff you see in movies. They’re psychologically vetted for these missions before they get sent on them. They want to make sure that exact thing doesn’t happen.

I’ve heard you make the point that, when you have a million candidates and you’re picking the top six, you’re selecting people who have good interpersonal skills.

For the most part, you can expect people who are on a manned Mars mission where, in the context of The Martian, it requires them to be together for over a year, and there’s six of them in fairly confined quarters . . . it’s not a space shuttle, and they still have more space than ISS astronauts, but those six better get along. And in the story I think I show that. The crew gets along all the time.

You definitely portray the bond between them really well, and that makes it effective as a story. I got choked up a lot reading this book because you have this sense of people caring about each other and trying their damnedest to save each other.

It’s not a new concept, that relationship among crewmates. If you just imagine a squad at war—soldiers, and the sort of camaraderie and loyalty they have to each other—that same psychological effect happens to astronauts. They’re like a family.

Speaking of the crew, this movie has an unbelievable cast; there’re ten people, any one of which could headline a movie on their own. Talk about how you ended up with so many big-name stars.

It kind of snowballed. Matt Damon said he was up for playing the lead and then Ridley Scott said he wanted to direct, and those two things is what caused everything else to happen, It made the studio say, “Okay, now we’re taking this project seriously,” which made them much more likely to greenlight it, and Ridley Scott is such a god in the field, everybody wants to work with him. They knew it was going to be heavily budgeted, and also I like to think that the performers really liked the story. It’s funny, they had all these agents for these big-name performers contacting them and saying they were interested in The Martian and the studio said, “This is great, but we cannot possibly afford all of you.” And a lot of them just worked for less than what they would usually get.

Another thing that helped, in no small part, is scheduling. One of the biggest challenges to getting a cast together for a film is scheduling, because they’re busy. The Martian works out well because there are three extremely separated settings: Mars, the crew on the Hermes, and the people at NASA. They filmed all the NASA scenes first, then Matt Damon’s scenes, and then towards the end of the time Matt Damon had on the production, they started filming the Hermes scenes with the crew together. Then they wrapped Matt Damon and filmed the rest of the Hermes scenes.

To what degree was it that people working on the movie were space nuts and wanted to promote the space program and humanity’s future in space? Was there any of that, in terms of getting people involved?

I don’t think so. It was just pure entertainment. Certainly that was my goal in writing the book, to entertain, not to press any agenda. And it’s Hollywood. They make movies because they want to make money. And that’s okay.

I’m sure you saw this recent Washington Post story: “Andy Weir and his book The Martian may have saved NASA and the entire space program.”

I think that’s a tad overstated. It’s very generous, but I think actually people might be getting cause and effect mixed up. We might be in a virtuous cycle. Space-mission based science fiction is becoming more popular, like The Martian, and before that Interstellar, and before that Gravity. The public is getting more engaged in space travel, therefore these movies become commercial successes. I don’t think these movies are driving the public interest in space travel as much as public interest in space travel is driving these movies. Either way, it’s good, because the public is increasing in their interest in space travel, and so more entertainment will come out that revolves around it, so they’ll feed off of each other.

You say that you didn’t have any particular agenda with The Martian, but you also said, “twenty-five years as a software engineer has taught me the importance of backing things up. We need to have a human population somewhere other than Earth.”

That is my opinion on why we should be doing space travel, but there’s a difference between the opinions I hold and the things I write. I’m not preaching my opinions in my writing. I think we should have a long-term goal of having another human population somewhere other than Earth, but I also think the best way to accomplish that is through basic economic activity. Make it so that there’s a profit incentive for being somewhere other than Earth. The only reason we have not already colonized the moon and Mars is because it’s so expensive to get into space. As the price of putting things in low Earth orbit gets pushed down by companies like SpaceX, eventually it will reach a point where a common guy like you or me can afford to go into space. Once that happens, then the space travel industry will mirror the commercial air travel industry, and there will be a supply and demand cycle that sends people further and further out. And you’ll wonder, “Why did they go at all?” Why did people go to the middle of Alaska? It’s what humans do.

I was curious, given your video game background, if there’s any talk about a The Martian videogame. It seems like it could be a really good way to teach science.

There may be talk about that, but at the moment there’s nothing that I’ve been told about. And I do not own the rights. The videogame rights were part of the movie deal, so FOX owns them.

I’ll have to go ask FOX, I guess.

You go ask them.

We have a comment on iTunes from Australia from Wannabebling, who gave us a three-star review. He said, “Haven’t actually listened yet; I subscribed expecting to get an Andy Weir/The Martian episode; was disappointed as there was no such. Three stars.” I just want to point out to Wannabebling that we have an Andy Weir/The Martian episode, so I hope we’ve redeemed ourselves.

Hopefully you will convert him. Maybe he’ll come back and readjust his review to five stars.

I hope so. If anyone out there knows Wannabebling in Australia, let him know that we have Andy Weir stuff. Andy, you want to tell us what other projects you got going on?

I’m working on my next book now. It’s a more traditional science fiction story. It’s got aliens and faster-than-light travel, though done my own way. I’ve got my little curl of bullshit physics that I invented, and I put a lot of work into it to ensure that it doesn’t come into conflict with real-world physics. I really need FTL for the story, but everything else is strictly accurate and science-based. It’s tentatively titled Zhek, and it should be out late 2016.

You say it’s bullshit physics, but it sounds like it sounds like this is really first-rate bullshit physics.

It is the shiniest well-sculpted bullshit that I can do. But it’s still bullshit. I don’t want to ruin it for anybody here, but you can’t actually travel faster than light, although I’m sure this will get me a bunch of e-mails from quantum physicists who say, “Well, that might not be true.”

It’s tentatively called Zhek? What are the chances it will be called Zhek when it is published?

High? Titling is a tricky thing. It may turn out that when I’m three-quarters of the way through I’ll have a much better title.

Unfortunately, we’re out of time. Everyone go check out The Martian; the movie hit theaters October 2. And keep an eye out for this book that will probably be called Zhek. Andy, thanks for joining us.

Thanks for having me.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.