Andy Weir is used to living on different worlds.
For years, he pictured Martian landscapes in his mind, complete with all of the deadly threats presented by a planet bathed in radiation, its red rocks swept by carbon dioxide windstorms, and the prospect that a human walking about would die in a very, very short time. He envisioned Martian habitats, equipment, hydroponic gardens and complex instruments, not to mention the propulsion systems needed to set human boots on the Red Planet. Andy Weir had clear images in his mind of what a Martian habitat would need to look like — how it recycled CO² and urine — how fragile these environments were in the face of the hostile Martian environment. And Andy Weir imagined just what would happen when an astronaut was accidentally left behind on a mission to the Red Planet. What would this astronaut have to do to survive for a period of time much longer than his supplies were scheduled to last?
So, Andy Weir wrote a novel detailing the exploits of Mark Watney, an industrious, irreverent, politically incorrect man who cared about his shipmates above even his own safety.
And people cared about Mark Watney. A whole lot of people.
Andy began publishing chapters of The Martian on his Web site, and his legion of nerdy fans ate it up, so much so, Andy’s 3000+ followers of his site started asking for the entire novel. Andy supplied The Martian as a free download on his site, but many of his followers had issues obtaining the file, and asked him to push a version onto the Amazon Web site as an e-book. He did, charging the bare minimum of 99 cents.
The Martian quickly sold 38,000 copies.
In publishing, this is a world at least as alien as Mars. His 3,000 or so Web site followers had been slowly drawn to Andy’s site, following a decade of science fiction writing, including books never making it out of the publishing starting gate.
And that folks is where the flesh and blood Andy Weir was transported into another world, or maybe an alternate universe.
What followed doesn’t happen — well, not usually.
Amazon noticed the churning of The Martian, and it bubbled to the top of the science fiction stories on the site. Somewhere, Random House gained notice, publishing rights were acquired, an agent signed Andy, and another book was contracted for. A Martian tornado hit Andy Weir right in the face: Sony pictures acquired the rights to the movie, and stocked it with proven stars in Matt Damon, Academy Award-nominated actress, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena and former Bond villain Sean Bean … not to mention one of the hottest directors in the world, Ridley Scott. That is the team you put in place for a blockbuster; the trailer alone will knock the wind out of you.
Andy and I met on a Skype chat to discuss his novel, the motion picture, and how this tsunami of events has changed his life. He was perfectly on time, his Skype message coming seconds before our chat was due to start. His face popped up on my screen, catching me by surprise. He was obviously in his home office, his cat, Demi, patrolled the bookcases behind him. Weir was anxious to speak, polite, energetic to the point of it being hard to keep up with his stream-of-consciousness, and very modest.
Perhaps the biggest challenge awaiting Andy Weir is to grasp what a big damned deal it is to do what he has done. I saw the trailer again this past weekend, and buried in the movie credits streaming past at the end of the trailer was: “From the novel by Andy Weir.”
RH: “My web camera is on my son’s computer, I can see you, but you’ll have to look at my Skype picture, Drax the Destroyer from Guardians of the Galaxy. We’re built pretty much the same.”
AW: “That’s OK. If we run into latency issues, I can kill the video.”
RH: “So, just how crazy is life these days?
AW: “Really crazy. The biggest change is that I’m now writing full time. Things all happened so fast. I’m even late on a deadline for a draft of my next book. Part of that was because the release of the movie was moved up and a lot of my time has been devoted to the publicity process. But everything’s cool.”
RH: “So, going on talk shows and all that?”
AW: “None of that yet, but that could change as the October release of the movie comes closer.”
RH: “I have to tell you, when I first saw the title, The Martian, I thought, ‘oh boy, another alien invades Earth with super powers story.’”
AW: “Hah. Because of the Martian in the title.”
RH: “Yeah, but it’s nothing like that. I have to tell you, I just came off the reading a book on the making of the movie Intersteller.”
RH: “But that book asks for a real suspension of belief — worm holes for travel and such. The Martian seems like it’s something here in a decade or two.”
AW: “That’s exactly what I was going for. I really worked hard at making sure the science was right.”
RH: “My background is in chemistry and…”
AW: “Oh, NO! Why did you have to be a chemist? That was the hardest part.”
RH: “I didn’t check your molar equations or anything like that, I was just amazed in today’s publishing world how that would fly. It was interesting to me, but publishers, or more specifically, the literary agents you need to help sell your work to a publisher, like to see the main character described in such great detail on page one — if they don’t, the story is tossed in the slush pile.”
AW: “But remember, I wasn’t writing The Martian for a mainstream audience. I was writing for science nerds like myself … my core readers, so they are scientifically-minded. I never imagined it would be read by non-science people. The non-science people just trusted me on the science — assuming this to be all true.”
RH: “I was at first worried that the chemistry would go over the heads of the general audience.”
AW: “I think people who aren’t into the chemistry or physics just skim over that part to get to what they want to read about.”
RH: “The first thing that struck me is that Mars is a really hostile place. Your main character, Mark Watney, could die in a hundred different ways. There is no end to the conflict and challenge you need to fuel this story. After all, maybe a lot of people who don’t know what Mars is about assume that a person could hold their breath and make a run for it in the Martian atmosphere.”
AW: “(laughs) Oh no, that wouldn’t work. I saw a documentary on the Apollo program. This astronaut had been testing a spacesuit in a vacuum and there was a leak. He said he could feel the saliva boiling off his tongue. In the low-pressure atmosphere of Mars, that would happen.
RH: “So, that scene from the Schwarzenegger movie where the guy gets dumped on the Martian landscape…”
AW: “Total Recall! Yeah, the head blows up. That’s not realistic. The guy would just pass out first.”
RH: “I don’t want to give away much about your book because I want people to go out and buy it, and I want people to see the movie, but your main character, Mark Watney, spends a lot of time alone. It is going to be real interesting to see how this fact is played out in the movie. Does he talk to himself? Do we hear him reading his log passages?”
AW: (hesitates) “I can’t really talk about specifics of the movie, but I can tell you they handle it great.”
RH: “Understood. I saw the trailer just this morning.”
AW: “Awesome, isn’t it?”
RH: “It’s going to be a great movie. But back to the book for a bit, I’m just guessing that, with your programming background, you probably had a bunch of these challenges to Mark Watney, like ‘potato yield’ in a file, and you worked through the math on the problem and then incorporated it into the story.”
AW: “Pretty much that. I had a notes file with all of that stuff in it and worked through it. I actually wrote a program to do orbital calculations.”
RH: “In what language?”
AW: “C++. But I enjoyed that. That was all fun for me. “
RH: “I’m sure you’ve been asked this a lot. How much of Andy Weir is in Mark Watney?”
AW: “He has all my qualities but none of my flaws. He’s a smartass — I’m a smartass. But he’s a lot braver than me. I have this streak of cowardice.”
RH: “Let’s talk about the brutality of people traveling to Mars. That’s a long hike. What about muscle atrophy?”
AW: “That’s why you have to have artificial gravity of some sort. Have you ever seen them unload astronauts who’ve come back from the International Space Station after a long mission? They have to cart them off on stretchers. Even with the exercise equipment and such, they’re in poor shape. You need centripetal or centrifugal force — whatever term you like best. Also, there are things like heart problems, macular degeneration in the eyes. Yeah, you need a pretty big centrifuge to keep people spinning, but any speed more than one RPM and the person is going to feel disoriented. It’s because, in a small radius centrifuge, the force would act differently on different parts of their body.”
RH: “Ever hear of the Mission Space ride at Disney World?”
AW: “No, but I hate roller coasters and that sort of thing.”
RH: “Ah, but this is a centrifuge that simulates the force of blastoff in a space shuttle.”
Editors note: I can see Weir over the Skype video anxiously typing in a query to find out more about the Mission Space ride.
RH: “I thought maybe you’d researched it for some ideas.”
AW: “No, but I don’t think I’d like that ride.”
RH: “It’s unsettling. Back to the movie. I read where you didn’t really want to be involved in the movie-making end.”
AW: “It’s not that I didn’t want to, really, it’s that I have such a small role. My main job was to cash the check. I have seen the screenplay, and made a few comments, but nothing beyond that.”
RH: “But, as a programmer, wouldn’t you like to see the technology?”
AW: “No, no. I’m not interested in seeing how a movie is made.”
RH: “I mean the CGI. The software advances have been incredible. You’d have to be stoked about seeing the technology.”
AW: “Oh, THAT. Sure. But I don’t know how I’d do that.”
RH: “You’re a bestselling author and your novel is going to be a huge motion picture. You have some leverage.”
AW: “Maybe. I did get an invite from Pixar.”
RH: “Did you hear what they (Pixar) did to Michael Douglas? I just saw a movie where they made him look like he was in his early 40s.”
AW: “Was that Ant Man?”
RH: “Yep. Great flick. Worth seeing.”
AW: “They did the same in the second Tron movie did you see it?”
AW: “They made Jeff Bridges look a lot younger, but his face kinda looked like plastic.”
RH: “That’s what I’m saying: in Ant Man it is just incredible. You need to see it.”
AW: “I will for sure.”
RH: “Back to Mars and travel.”
AW: “Yes, in The Martian, I use a form of ion propulsion. I’m taking some liberties there, because we haven’t perfected that yet.”
RH: “That’s magnetic propulsion?”
AW: “Yes, the VASIMR drive, that’s the tech I was talking about.”
RH: “What about antimatter? Just milligrams could power a flight all the way to Mars and back.”
AW: “I didn’t put any thought into antimatter. That’s an extremely speculative energy form, and we’re centuries away from doing anything significant along those lines.”
RH: “Supplies are a big issue in the long hike to Mars.”
AW: “Yes and no. You can simply recycle oxygen and water, but you need food. “
RH: “In The Martian, CO² is a big enemy. You have to filter it out.”
AW: “Yes, always, but I was able to tour the Johnson Space Center a few months ago and saw a membrane they were developing that could hold back the O² and just let the CO² pass. Impressive.”
RH: “Then there’s the food. In the book, it’s the potato crop.”
RH: “In a real mission, would we have to send supplies out halfway to supply the ship traveling to Mars?”
AW: “You mean land it on Mars?”
RH: “No, but can we put enough onboard to last for the journey out there?”
AW: “Sure. You know, I really believe we, as humans, need to establish a colony out there — whether it be on Mars, the moon, or whatever.”
RH: “On that topic, I went to the Denver museum a couple of years ago and they had video of the rovers running around the surface. Very high-definition. I sat there for like an hour.”
RH: “Lots of red dust, red pebbles, red boulders, red mountains — and nothing else. Looks nasty.”
AW: “Yes, very nasty.”
RH: “Because of that fact, why is it so important to send people up there when these rovers can do a lot of the work without worrying about radiation, space travel, hard landings, spacesuit leaks, lack of oxygen?”
AW: “Because we can’t take the human element out of it. Look, all the work that those rovers did in years on the planet? A human could have done the same in 20 minutes.”
RH: “I’ve read where some people think the interest in The Martian may trigger some public demand to pursue a Mars mission — that could result in political votes that lead to more funding for NASA and so forth.”
AW: “I’ve read that too, and it would be great.”
RH: “Let’s talk about that. Again, you’re a bestselling author — number 2 on the New York Times best seller list. Your book is going to be made into a major motion picture. So, let’s just say NASA calls and says, ‘Andy, in gratitude for your novel that spurred interest in NASA funding, we’ve got a spot for you on the next Russian ship headed up to the International Space Station’…do you go?”
AW: “No way. Remember, I’m not Mark Watney in the bravery department. No space travel for me.”
RH: “Let’s talk about the writing process. The way you did it just doesn’t happen. Normally, you write a novel, and write dozens or hundreds of query letters to try to get an agent because publishers won’t, or can’t take direct submissions due to the sheer volume. Writing, after all, is the ultimate work-at-home job. So, how did this go down with your Web site? I read where you started putting excerpts, chapter-by-chapter of The Martian on your web site and people demanded more. You put a file of the text there, but people had downloading problems, and then you went to Amazon…and it went crazy from there. But, going back to the first speed bump — how did you have the critical mass of people on your Web site to begin with?”
AW: “Well, I’ve had a blog for years and have slowly gained readership over like 10 years. I had like 3,000 people who were reading my stuff. But you know, The Martian was actually my third book! I went through all that you described — wrote it, tried to find an agent, no luck whatsoever. Lots of rejection.”
RH: “Did you keep a spreadsheet of all those rejections so you could send ‘I told you so notes’?”
AW: “(laughs) No, no. didn’t do that. I figured they didn’t get published because they sucked.”
RH: “They may not have sucked. It’s just that the writing business is so tough these days, and maybe the right person didn’t read them.”
AW: “Maybe. “
RH: “You mentioned a follow-up book.”
AW: “Yes, there are aliens in it and faster-than-light travel. I know, that violates some of the laws.”
RH: “E=MC² for one.”
Editor’s note, Einstein’s famous equation indicates that as an object approaches light speed, its mass increases to the point where infinite energy would be required to push it to light speed, thus nothing can exceed the speed of light.
AW: “I’m not going faster than C, but I have surprises in there.”
RH: “Anything else?”
AW: “I’m writing a TV pilot, but screenwriting is hard.”
RH: “Sure it is. You have 15 pages to describe a potato crop in a novel, but you have less than a page to do it in dialogue in a screenplay.”
AW: “I actually hate the exposition part in novel writing.”
RH: “But it’s all about exposition to set the scene.”
AW: “Yes. But I really am attracted to television as a medium because it’s so immediate.”
RH: “Jumping back to Mars and colonization. You said you really favor colonizing someplace other than Earth, whether the moon or Mars, or somewhere else. What are your thoughts about the Mars One colonization effort? They have a Web site to raise money.”
AW: “I don’t take Mars One seriously. They only have about $400,000. That’s not enough money to colonize Nebraska, let alone Mars. And there’s no way to raise a hundred billion dollars with reality TV money.”
RH: “That doesn’t buy much in a space mission.”
RH: “Before we go, a little bit of background, your father was a scientist?”
AW: “He was a particle physicist. He worked on an instrument to use a proton beam to destroy tumors. They can configure the beam to deliver its energy at a specific point in the body. They’re trying to get the size down so it’s like, everywhere, like an MRI.”
RH: “Yes, Proton Beam Therapy. They won’t be putting them everywhere for a while. They’re super expensive. I wrote about it in an article on prostate cancer. I also wrote about particle physics in a novel.”
RH: “Yes, it’s called Agbero. A particle accelerator twice as big as the one in Switzerland generates Higgs bosons and tears a gap into the afterlife. Spirits can be called up on a computer screen.”
AW: “Sounds cool.”
RH: “I’ll send you a copy to read in all the spare time you have.”
AW: “Cool, how will you send it?”
RH: “I can send the Kindle version.”
AW: “I hate to say this, but I don’t own a Kindle.”
RH: “Wait, you have sold all these eBooks in addition to your hardcover, and you don’t have an e-reader?”
AW: “(laughing) Nope.”
RH: “I’ll send you a PDF then.”
AW: “Great! I’ll read it first chance I get.”
RH: “Andy, best of luck to you. I’m sure your follow up novel will do great, and I hope the movie smashes the box office.”
AW: “Thank you. Thanks for speaking with me.”
So, Andy Weir went off to two more interviews that day. He fields such requests a few days a week while he tries to keep up on his writing projects, and adjusts to life as a big-time writer and we’re not talking C++ programs. As far as his next projects, he seems a little insecure about them, but maybe he’s just getting his Earth legs back.
After all, Andy Weir has been on Mars for several years.
Randy Hice is a leading authority in the field of laboratory informatics and currently works for a global healthcare company. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.
Agbero | Randy C. Hice | May 29, 2013 | Kindle Price: $4.99 | Available on Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords and several other ebook outlets.
Summary: Would the world be a better or worse place if the afterlife is discovered to be simply another dimension accessible by technology? Would religious zealots be forced to define blasphemy in entirely new terms? Would a juggernaut industry materialize to connect the dearly departed with their corporeal family members? Agbero challenges the reader to consider these questions and more; all while being swept into a breathtaking maelstrom of ingenious murder, startling psychics, and shocking duplicity.