It began as a series of blog posts in 2009. Now, The Martian has become an international sensation, in the form of not only a best-selling book, but a widely acclaimed movie directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. For its Californian creator, Andy Weir, 43, it has been an astronomical six-year rise from a humble computer programmer to a world-renowned author.
Both the book and the movie have been widely praised for their scientific accuracy (including by us), so we caught up with Andy to discuss the importance of science in storytelling, the possibilities of life on Mars, and much more.
How did you come up with the idea for The Martian?
"I’m a dork, I’ve always been a huge fan of space and the space program, and I was thinking how we could do a manned Mars mission with the currently available technology, or slight improvements to it. I came up with all the details, how a mission profile would work and plans for failures, and thought it was making a pretty good story. So I thought, hey, I’ll make an unfortunate protagonist, and subject him to all of this."
The book dealt with a large range of topics, from botany to space exploration. How did you research it all?
"Mostly it was just Google. I didn’t know anybody in the industry when I made the book. I do now!"
How big a deal was it to you to get the science correct?
"It was very important to me. When I see inaccurate science in a movie or book, it really bugs me and takes me out of the story. Don’t get me wrong, something physically impossible doesn’t bother me, but something demonstrably wrong does. So, for instance, if your story says ‘well we’ll have a warp drive, it can travel faster than light,’ that’s fine. Star Trek, doesn’t bother me at all.
"But if they say ‘oh, now we’re gonna walk around on the surface of the Moon, everybody hold your breath,’ it‘s like no, you’ll die! This is demonstrably wrong. Big violations of physics don’t bother me, little ones do. The Martian deals with surviving on Mars with limited equipment. I had to be accurate, or the whole thing would be kind of a waste."
Is Mark Watney based on you?
"Oh yeah, absolutely. He’s based on my smart-ass personality, but he’s better at all this, better than me at all the things I do, and he doesn’t have my flaws. He’s what I wish I was, an idealised version of me. I think you’ll see a lot of that in fiction. The main character is usually someone that author wants to be, or someone they're in love with. For the record, I want to be Watney."
His habitat and all his equipment, that’s all based on real technology then?
"Yes, with a few minor concessions. I granted them a very magical kind of technology where they have thin, flexible radiation shielding. And so all of this radiation problem is taken care of with that, everything is lined with the shielding. But no such technology actually exists. Other than that, everything in the book is real, either actual modern day technology or slight improvements. For instance, the ion engines on Hermes are much more powerful than what we’ve made, but we have made and powered spacecraft by ion engines [such as the Dawn probe]."
Your design for the Hermes spacecraft transporting astronauts to and from Mars includes a large rotating section, to simulate artificial gravity. Will this be a necessity for future Mars missions?
"Yes, I absolutely believe it’s necessary. The long-term effects of zero G on humans are really devastating. When you see astronauts get out of a Soyuz on Earth after six months on the International Space Station (ISS), they always have to physically lift the astronauts out. The astronauts cannot even stand up under their own weight after a long period in zero G, so how would you expect them to spend that long in transit to Mars and then be effective on the surface? They wouldn’t even be able to stand."
The Hermes spacecraft, shown, is used by astronauts in The Martian to travel back and forth to Mars. 20th Century Fox.
How confident are you we will go to Mars in the near-future?
"It depends on the definition of 'near-future.' We will certainly go to Mars within 100 years. NASA says we’ll go in the 2030s, I don’t doubt they could, but I don’t have faith in Congress to give them the funding they need. So I’m guessing more conservatively at around 2050."
Will our mission to Mars be more of an international endeavor than The Martian, which was mostly American?
"I did that specifically to harken back to the Apollo era, and pull on those nostalgia heartstrings a bit. But in real life, I think it would be organizationally similar to the ISS. NASA, Russia, ESA, JAXA, maybe even the Indian space agency. And I’d like the Chinese to be involved too, I don’t understand why we don’t cooperate with them more."
One noticeable absence from the book is the discussion of possible life on Mars. Do you think there is life there?
"I really don’t. Let’s say you scooped up a sample of anything on Earth, just one liter of air or seawater or dirt or anything, you would find it teeming with life. Even snow from the Antarctic, you still find tons of evidence of life, like single-celled organisms frozen solid, they’re there. So life is extremely tenacious and spreads out to fill everything, and so I believe that if there was life anywhere on Mars, it would be everywhere on Mars. And every probe we’ve sent, every attempt we’ve done to find any life on that planet has come back negative. So I find it very unlikely that it exists at all."
Do you think we’ll permanently colonize Mars one day?
"In the distant future, sure. In the near future, no. Not in our lifetimes. I think humanity has a tendency to just expand and expand. Once it becomes economically viable to travel to Mars and emigrate there, then I think people absolutely will."
Weir doesn't think there is life on Mars, but does think we'll go there one day. 20th Century Fox.
Okay, enough about Mars. Where else do you want to see us travel to in space?
"I’d like to see us do more with the Moon. It is incredibly close, and it is this very, very handy jumping off point. A lunar colony could be Earth dependent. If you were on a football field, and you were at one goal, and Mars was at the other goal, the Moon would be about four centimeters [1.6 inches] from your foot. It's pretty near."
We hear you’re working on a new book, called Zhek. What’s it about?
"It’s more traditional sci-fi, with faster than light travel and aliens and stuff like that. We get visited by aliens in the modern day. It’s more Star Trek than The Martian, but considerably less Star Trek than Star Trek."
Did you aim to keep it scientifically accurate?
"Yes, absolutely. I came up with a physics model that allows faster than light travel, which is not in conflict with any real physics, but aside from that one concession, everything else is real physics."
Thanks for your time Andy.
Image in text: The Martian book cover, courtesy of Penguin Random House.