Andy Weir is comfortably back home in the San Francisco Bay Area working on his next book, but for the last few years he’s been lost in space—Mars, to be specific.
“I'm a huge fan of space travel, space research, manned and unmanned space flight,” The Martian author says. “But in terms of the American space program, I'm actually not that happy. Basically, all we do now is go to the International Space Station.” Weir says that the International Space Station is “really cool and all, but the amount of money this country spends on it could have been put to better use.”
Weir’s debut novel spectacularly envisions the product of a much more daring American space program, the Ares 3 expedition, which goes horribly wrong during a Martian sandstorm when an astronaut named Mark Watney becomes marooned on the red planet. Astonishingly, the plucky protagonist’s off-Earth adventure is just beginning when the rest of the crew is forced to abort and reluctantly starts the long journey back home.
Although The Martian is meticulously rendered (right down to the precise mixture of Martian soil and down-home dirt needed to yield a bumper crop of life-sustaining spuds), the computer programmer-turned writer doesn’t think anyone will actually be trampling around our Roman-inspired neighbor’s backyard any time soon.
“Now that computers and robotics are so good, you've really got to ask the question, ‘Why should we risk human lives on this when whatever we want to find out about Mars we can just make a robot do for us?’ ” Weir says. “So, in the real world, there's not much justification for it.”
That niggling little point, however, didn’t stop Weir from delving deep inside his main character’s psyche to the point of mentally transporting himself roughly 35- to 250-million miles to the surface of Mars itself.
“It was really immersive for me,” Weir says. “I would just sit around and just think, ‘What if I was Watney right now just sitting in the Hab? I'm not doing anything in particular. Nothing is broken. What would I be thinking? What would I be doing?’ Well, I might do some extra checks on my equipment to make sure stuff is working right because I have nothing better to do and I'd be paranoid about that. I spent a lot of time wondering what I would do in that position—which is kind of what I want the reader to do. I want the reader to think, ‘Oh, what if that were me?’ ”
Weir doesn’t think he’d last very long on Mars, though.
“I think I'd probably die,” the author says. “The character of Watney is much more—how do I put it? —much more educated about stuff. He's much better trained. He's actually an astronaut, so he knows what to do, and he keeps a cool head. I'm not sure I'd be able to handle that kind of pressure. I'd try real hard to survive, but I'd be pretty damned nervous.”
In actuality, Weir doesn’t even like to fly, so he won’t be volunteering to blast off to Mars should the space program kick it up a notch, or we ultimately decide that astronauts are better than robots.
“Honestly, no,” he says. “In real life, I'm a nervous flier. I don't even want to be on airplanes. So, the idea of getting into a ship that goes into orbit...I like to fantasize about people who are better than me doing that sort of stuff. But I think it would be unrelenting terror for me.”
Keeping his feet firmly on the ground, Weir has nevertheless crafted a thoroughly entertaining, science-heavy survival yarn that has since earned the thumbs-up from no less of an expert than Astronaut Chris Hadfield, commander of the aforementioned International Space Station. And he accomplished that remarkable feat without ever consulting the friendly folks at NASA during the writing process.
“All my research was just going online and looking things up,” Weir says. “I've got a strong science background, so I know a lot of the basics. I would ask people specific questions but they weren't people who work at NASA. I know physicists, so if there was a question beyond me, I'd ask them. I know chemists. That's how I got expert opinions. But I didn't talk to anybody at NASA or any astronauts while making the book; I didn't know any of them then.”
An incorrigible smart-ass, Weir’s obviously super-competent Mark Watney also happens to owe a lot to ‘80s TV icon MacGyver. And maybe even a little bit of Walter White thrown in there, too.
“People like problem-solving in stories,” Weir says. “When I'm a reader or a viewer, I really love it when the main character has a problem and then they solve the problem—but I did not predict the way they were going to do it. You go all the way back to the ‘80s—remember MacGyver? Every episode was something like that. People really like that clever, resourceful problem-solver kind of story. I think Breaking Bad has a lot of that, too. You'll watch a few episodes and you'll think, ‘I have no idea how he's going to get out of this fix.’ And then he does. And, yeah, the way he does it makes sense.”
Joe Maniscalco is a writer living in Brooklyn.