"I want us to have a self-sufficient population somewhere other than Earth because 25 years of being a computer programmer has taught me the value of backing things up," says Andy Weir. Weir's novel The Martian tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney as he struggles to survive alone on Mars after being mistakenly left for dead.
Weir was working as a computer programmer in Silicon Valley when he began serializing The Martian on his personal website for an audience consisting of what he describes as a few thousand "hardcore science dorks." Five years later, he had a book deal with Crown Publishing and a film option from 20th Century Fox.
The story, heavy on technology, became an unlikely bestseller and then an even more unlikely Hollywood blockbuster directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. It made $54 million on its opening weekend and had raked in a worldwide box office gross topping $435 million and still going strong as of press time.
Reason TV's Zach Weissmueller sat down with Weir shortly before the October release of the Martian movie to talk about his transformation from programmer to bestselling author, the challenges of writing a scientifically accurate space novel, and the prospects for real-life space travel. For a video version of the interview, go to reason.com.
reason: The story behind the book is almost as interesting as the book. Could you take us through that journey?
Andy Weir: Oh, you know, it's the same as anybody else. Once you self-publish something it gets made into a movie by Ridley Scott [smiles].
I always wanted to be a writer, but I also liked the idea of eating regular meals, and so when the time came to choose a career, I went into computer programming. And that's fun; I like it. But in my late 20s I was working for AOL, and I got laid off when they merged with Netscape, and I ended up with a bunch of money. Mostly because I had AOL stock options that I'd never really paid attention to, but then I was forced to sell because I got laid off, and it turned out to be AOL's, like, peak price ever. Pure luck—I assure you I would not make a wise financial decision left to my own devices.
But I ended up with a bunch of money, so I took three years off and tried to write a book. It was called Theft of Pride. You've never heard of it because it wasn't that good. I wrote it and then I had the standard sad author experience that everyone has: I couldn't get any traction on it, couldn't get a literary agent, couldn't get any interest at all. And so after three years I went, "OK, well, it's time to go back into real work," and I went back to computer programming.
Around this time, I set up my own webpage for my creative efforts. I did a bunch of Web comics, short stories, stuff like that. And one thing I would post were serials, and The Martian was just one of three serials I was working on at the same time.
I would a post a chapter maybe every two months or so. I put a lot of work into making it scientifically accurate, because my regular readers were hardcore science dorks. I never had any notion that this story would be popular in the mainstream. I thought this was a story by a nerd for nerds. But I just kept posting chapters and eventually I finished and thought, "OK, I'm done. On to other projects."
But then I started to get emails from my readers. They were like, "Hey, I loved The Martian but I hate your site"—because my site sucks—and they were like, "It's no fun to read a book on a website. Can you just make an e-reader version?" So I did that and I posted it to the site. And then I got other emails from people saying, "Hey, I'm glad there's an e-reader version, but I'm not very technically savvy and I don't know how to download a thing from the Internet and put it on my e-reader. Can you just post it to Amazon so I can get it for my Kindle through the normal system?"
Self-publishing through Amazon is pretty easy. You post it and they hang onto it for a couple of days to make sure it's not goat porn—or at least, if it's goat porn, they properly categorize it before throwing it up there. So I said, "All right, folks, you can read it for free on my website, or you can download the e-reader version for free, or you can pay Amazon a buck to put it on your Kindle for you." Because Amazon won't let you give your stuff away for free. I was required to set a minimum price, so I set it at 99 cents—I was pulling down a cool 30-cents-per-copy royalty, I'll have you know—and I just turned it loose.
And it sold, like, tens of thousands of copies. It worked its way up to the top of the bestsellers in science and got good reviews and got this word-of-mouth thing going on. And then finally an editor at Random House was talking to a colleague of his named David Fugate, who's a literary agent, and he said, "I heard this book's good but I'm not sure if it's just engineering porn or if it's actually mainstream-accessible."
And so David read it, he liked it, and he contacted me and asked if I needed an agent. After three years earlier not being able to get an agent at all, one comes knocking on my door. Within a couple of weeks, he had me on the phone with Random House working on a book deal, and while they were negotiating that, Fox came for the film option. The two deals were agreed to four days apart, so that was a stressful week for me.
By the way, all this time I'm a computer programmer. So I'm, like, in my cubicle working on bugs, then sneaking off to a conference room to take a call about my movie deal, then back to my cubicle to fix more bugs. It was surreal.
reason: What is the lesson that you took away from that process?
Weir: I've put a lot of work into trying to figure out, "What the hell did I do right?" Because I'd like to do that again. I did not expect it to have mainstream appeal, and the only thing I can think of is that as a society, people are more educated on science than ever before and so they can appreciate more detailed science fiction.
reason: Doing it in a serialized form and having this instant feedback from this legion of nerds—did it make you a better writer?
Weir: It did. One of the biggest challenges is actually sitting your ass down and writing, and knowing that there were people eagerly waiting for each new chapter helped really motivate me to get it done.
The other thing that was cool was that I had 3,000 fact checkers. There's nothing a nerd loves more than telling you you're wrong on math, and I can confirm this because I myself am a nerd, and so I would get emails saying, "You got this wrong, you got that wrong." Some screw-ups made it through to the final copy, but not many.
reason: How did you gather the scientific knowledge together and synthesize it into something that made sense?
Weir: I started off by being a lifelong space nerd—I love space, space travel, spaceships. My whole life I've had this as a hobby, and I watch a lot of documentaries, I read a lot of nonfiction books about space, and so I started out with more than a layman's knowledge of this stuff. But mostly it was just tons and tons of research. Google was pretty much my main source. I didn't know anyone in aerospace when I wrote the book.
reason: Since you wrote this in serialized form, did you have the entire arc figured out from the beginning?
Weir: I made it up as I went along. I knew how I wanted it to end, so I was like, "OK, I gotta get here," but I didn't know how I was going to get there. Every time things calmed down and every time [the protagonist] solved a problem, I tried to think, "What is the next most logical problem for him to have?" Because I didn't want it to be just this poor unlucky guy. It's a cascade failure—every problem is caused by the solution to his previous problem.
reason: In past Q&As, you described your politics as socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Do you consider yourself a libertarian?
Weir: Not a capital "l" Libertarian.
reason: A small "l" libertarian?
Weir: I guess. I generally try to steer clear of discussing politics at all. I don't want people to think about my political views when they're reading my book.
reason: Why is that?
Weir: Well, you write what you want to read, right? And I hate it when I feel like I'm being preached at. When I'm reading a book and I feel like "This is no longer a story, this is the author trying to make some political point at me," that's not why I pick up a book. When I read a book, I want to be entertained, I want to have fun. If I want to think about politics I'll pick up a nonfiction book on political discourse, but if I'm reading a book about a dude stranded on Mars, I don't want some agenda involved. It ruins a story for me, because not only is the author preaching at me but the universe of this book is going to align to validate his point of view.
reason: One theme that runs through the book was the ability of these driven individuals to apply their intelligence to work through problems, even in the face of a sometimes cumbersome bureaucracy, and how in an emergency situation a lot of staid rules are pushed aside to try to save this person. Do you think that would happen in real life?
Weir: Yeah, and I think it did happen in Apollo 13. They said, "Well, all those procedures we carefully worked out, that's gone now. Now we have one singular, solitary objective—get these three people back home alive."
reason: Robert Zubrin, who is president of the Mars Society, wrote an article in reason asking the blunt and somewhat uncomfortable question, How much is an astronaut's life worth? The question is not necessarily about a rescue situation per se but about precautionary measures—there's an unlimited amount of money that you could spend, because you can never reach perfect safety. So a government agency has to ask the question, "At what point do we stop spending money and actually send someone up into this horrible scary vacuum called space?"
Do you think it's possible for governments to adequately balance those two concerns?
Weir: I think it's absolutely possible and I think they do it. A really good example isn't so much astronauts but air travel. Governments have to decide, "What are the requirements for aircraft? What safety requirements do we want to put in place?" Because there are things you could do to make planes even safer but eventually, well, now a ticket from New York to L.A. is going to cost $20,000. So they work out a formula and it's something like, if you can decrease mortality odds by a certain percentage, it's worth spending this much money to do.
The same will eventually be true of space travel. Right now, everything's [done on] a case-by-case basis. It's actually really dangerous—mankind has sent between five and six hundred people into space ever, and on the order of 20 of them have died. That's pretty bad odds if you think about it.
reason: What do you think is the appropriate way to proceed with balancing the risks versus the potential reward?
Weir: The Martian is sort of a weird, special case, right? There's a scene in the book where a reporter asks, "At what point are we spending too much here to save Watney?" And the answer is, well, they're getting an extended Mars mission out of it. They originally had a [Short Tour Return Date] program where they spent hundreds of billions of dollars to have five missions, each one of which was there for, like, 31 sols [Martian solar days]. Now, just by spending a few hundred million more dollars, they're getting a guy who's there for, like, 500 sols. So from a strictly dollars-per-amount-of-time-spent-on-Mars, Watney was this fantastic deal. It's easy to make that economic argument.
reason: The trend in space travel has been toward privatization, but in the book it's a NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] mission going to Mars. Do you think it's possible that a private entity, someone like an Elon Musk, is going to get to Mars before the government does?
Weir: I don't think that's likely, but I do believe that commercial space flight will be absolutely critical in the first manned mission to Mars. I'm pretty sure that, despite how I wrote it in my book, it will be a large international effort. I think you can expect that NASA, Roscosmos, [the European Space Agency], the Indian [Space Research Organisation], maybe even the Chinese will all work together. And that's going to require some big-ass ship be put in orbit. Now, either you use cyclers or you use ion engines or you use good old-fashioned propellant—either way, you're going to have to put an awful lot of mass in orbit, and that's where commercial space flights are going to come in.
A company that makes widgets in New York and wants to sell them in L.A. doesn't make their own fleet of trucks. They hire a trucking company to do the transport. Companies like SpaceX are freight companies. They'll drive the price down and down and down, and that's the key.
By the way, people have always said going to Mars is going to cost several hundred billion dollars. I don't think it will, because I think by the time we're actually considering it, the price to [low Earth orbit] will have come down a lot because of commercial space travel. And that's the main thing, getting things from the surface of Earth to Earth orbit. There's a point at which it's now 2040 and we're pretty sure we can get humans on Mars for $50 billion, and we're going to distribute that $50 billion across the wealthiest nations on Earth, and suddenly you have a Mars mission that didn't really cost anybody that much.
reason: What is the most compelling case for governments to work to send a mission to Mars?
Weir: The real question is why would anybody send a human to Mars, because we have really good robotics technology. We have really good [artificial intelligence]. Give us another 20 years of tech, or take some of that hundred-billion dollars that it would cost to send humans to Mars and put that into developing the tech, and you will very quickly end up with rovers that are at least as effective as astronauts and have enough A.I. to make minor decisions on their own. You could tell a rover, "OK, go over to that thing and take a sample," and it would be able to do the pathing on its own.
So why should we send a human at all? A rover doesn't need to be kept alive during the trip to Mars. A rover doesn't need a bunch of special equipment to stay alive on Mars. A rover never needs to come back-and if we screw up, we just lose time and effort and money. We don't lose a human life.
reason: So why send a human to Mars?
Weir: The answer is because the rovers are what you want to send to Mars if what you're after is information about Mars. I have a different goal. I want us to have a self-sufficient human population somewhere other than Earth, because 25 years of being a computer programmer has taught me the value of backing things up. As long as our entire species is on one planet, we risk extinction. It's not very likely, but it could happen. It could be a plague. It could be a war. It could be a meteor strike or something like that. But if we're on two planets, it is practically impossible for us to die. And part of colonization is figuring out how to send humans to Mars.
reason: One of the things I loved about the book was the voice for Mark Watney. He was in a dire situation, but he had a sort of sarcastic and fun voice. How did you settle on that tone?
Weir: First off, it's pretty much my own smart-ass personality. Watney's similar to me [except that] he's better than me at everything I do and he doesn't have any of my flaws.
But another part is there's an enormous amount of technical exposition in the book, just constantly explaining the science, and that would get really boring and would read like a Wikipedia article…so having a wise-cracking first-person narrator telling you all this information means I could sneak jokes in there left and right. Every few paragraphs there's something that makes you chuckle, and that's really important to keep the reader through all this exposition.
reason: So the question that everyone almost always asks the writer is, How much did they ruin your book when they adapted it into a movie?
Weir: They didn't. It's a fantastic adaptation. Of course I'm going to say that no matter what—I'm an incredibly biased source. But it's a very faithful adaptation of the book. They had to take a bunch of stuff out, of course, because otherwise it'd be a 10-hour-long movie, but the stuff they took out is what I would've taken out given the task. They also simplified stuff, so the science is all still accurate but they don't sit down and explain it to you.
reason: So now that you've sold your first novel and made it into a major motion picture, what's next?
Weir: I'm working on my next book now. It's tentatively titled Zhek and it'll probably be out in late 2016. It's a more traditional sci-fi novel. It's got aliens and faster-than-light travel and stuff like that. It's pretty intimidating. I don't imagine I'll ever have a success quite as big as The Martian, so writing this next book is kind of stressful. The sophomore curse.