Andy Weir, author of The Martian, Artemis, and Project Hail Mary answers our questions about his latest book, reveals the benefit of writing relatable characters, and shares his feelings about the Fab Four.
Abbe Wright: Andy, when I open one of your novels, I know we’re starting with a pretty big problem. In The Martian, we’ve got Mark Watney, who’s stuck alone on Mars. In Artemis, we’ve got Jazz Bashara, who’s presented with this opportunity that she cannot turn down, and Project Hail Mary opens with a big, big problem. Tell us a little bit about the problem at the center of your latest novel?
Andy Weir: Well, the first problem that our protagonist has is he wakes up in a hospital bed with tubes in him and he has complete amnesia. He has no idea who he is, where he is, or why he’s there. Over time, he comes to realize he’s aboard a space craft, and then he also comes to realize that he is responsible for a last-ditch effort to save all of humanity…so, no pressure.
Abbe Wright: Right, no pressure! Do you enjoy thinking of these sticky situations for your characters to get out of? How do you come up with these otherworldly problems?
Andy Weir: Usually, it starts off with an unrelated idea. I’ll be speculating on some weird science thing and not thinking, “here’s a story idea.” For The Martian, for example, I was thinking, how could we put humans on Mars, just designing a Mars mission in my head, not for fiction purposes, just cause I’m that kind of guy. And then as I, you know realized all the problems that can happen, I thought like, oh, this could make a good book.
For Artemis, I started off by thinking, what is humanity’s first city that isn’t on Earth going to be? You know, where will it be? What will it look like? How did they build it? Why did they build it? That led to Artemis. For Project Hail Mary, I was thinking about spacecraft fuel. What kind of fuel would we need to be able to do interstellar travel, and I thought, well, you’d need just enormous amounts of energy storage, and then I was thinking, well, how do you do that?
Between The Martian and Artemis, I was working on another book called Zhek. I got about 70,000 words into it before I realized that it sucked, and so I shelved it, but there were a few elements of Zhek that I thought were little diamonds in the rough that I thought I could use, and one of them was this space craft fuel. The idea is that it just basically absorbs heat and turns it into mass to store the energy and then it can release that energy as light when it wants. If you had that, we could do interstellar travel because that level of fuel density would let you actually enable a ship to go to another star, eventually.
And, then I started thinking well, what if it’s natural? What if it grew? Then I thought, where’s it going to get that much energy? Well, what if it lived on stars? Oh, okay, that makes sense. It’s like mold that grows on the surface of stars and then uses that enormous energy that it’s gathering to spore out and hit other stars. It also needs to migrate when it reproduces to get the elements it needs that aren’t hydrogen.
After that, I’m like, okay, this is all working out. This is kind of neat. And then I thought, well, wait a minute, it would be really bad if that hit our star. Then, our star would have basically an algae bloom that’s consuming a lot of its energy, and then everyone on earth would die. Well, that sucks. And then I thought, like, wait, no, that doesn’t suck. That’s a story. That’s a book.
Abbe Wright: So, both The Martian and Project Hail Mary, with their themes of solitude, are ultimate quarantine novels. Do you think people are going to relate differently to these books now after being in lockdown for over a year? And did that impact your writing, at all, of Project Hail Mary?
Andy Weir: Uh, it definitely didn’t impact the writing because I finished it before the, before COVID hit. As for reading it, since it feels like we’ve turned a corner, hopefully, it won’t be a thing you read in quarantine. It’ll just be a thing you read.
Abbe Wright: So, how is the protagonist of Project Hail Mary, Ryland Grace’s, situation different from Mark Watney’s in The Martian?
Andy Weir: Well, Mark Watney just wants to survive. The stakes of The Martian are a single person’s life. And, he wants to survive, and a lot of people want to help him survive. Ryland Grace is the opposite. He is on a mission where, it’s okay if he dies, but he needs to complete his mission, or everyone else on earth will die, so it’s kind of the exact opposite.
I am very aware of the similarities between The Martian and Project Hail Mary. We have an isolated scientist far from earth, doing a lot of problem solving, but I didn’t want to have a re-run of any of the stuff from The Martian, so the problems that Ryland faces are completely different.
For instance, he’s got plenty of food. He’s fine on the food, and, with a few very minor exceptions, his ship works correctly. All of his equipment works and, and never breaks down and does what it’s supposed to, because actually, unlike Mark who is stranded on Mars using equipment that’s supposed to last for like 30 days and he has to live there for like two years, Grace is on a ship that was made for this purpose.
So, for Ryland Grace, it’s not a story of him trying to survive. It’s much more about finding a way to solve this problem that has afflicted our sun.
Abbe Wright: Yes, I definitely felt that those stakes were much higher. When you’re messing with the sun, you’re messing with everything we hold dear, right?
Andy Weir: Well, the entire earth biosphere is at stake, right? All the humans will die, and there’d probably be some stuff that survived with a reduced solar output, but it wouldn’t be us. What’s happening is an extinction-level event.
Abbe Wright: Mark Watney was a botanist and Ryland Grace is a junior high school teacher. You have this great way of creating unlikely heroes. What do you love about doing that?
Andy Weir: The most important thing in any book, especially a book that has one single, central character, is the reader has to identify with and care about and root for that character. There’s no other way around it. If you don’t like the character, you’re going to put the book down. If you don’t at least empathize with the character, you’re also going to put the book down, and if you don’t identify with the character, then you might read the book and you might enjoy it, but you don’t really have that connection. You don’t feel like you’re imagining yourself in that situation. You’re just watching someone else do it. Like, I love watching James Bond movies, you know? I like watching some classy, stylish British secret agent kicking ass and seducing all the beautiful women in the world, but I don’t identify with that. I cannot kick ass. I do not get all the ladies throwing themselves at my feet, so I don’t identify with James Bond. I don’t feel like I’m like him in any way, whereas some hapless guy who’s in over his head and has no idea what he’s doing? I think everybody can identify with that. Everybody identifies with imposter syndrome. Everybody can identify with feeling like, “I’m not the best at this.”
Abbe Wright: One of the things that I love that you do, Andy, is you make your characters sort of underdogs that are trapped in hopeless-seeming situations, but your books still have this sense of optimism to them. How do you manage that, and is it really important to you to imbue that sense of hope throughout your stories?
Andy Weir: It’s funny. People say you write such hopeful, uplifting stuff. That’s how I view humanity, I guess. I’m a bit of a Pollyanna. I have a very positive view of humanity and human nature, and I, I, I know that a lot of people don’t. A lot of people think humanity is scum, but I don’t think that’s true. I think that we are an awesome and amazing people as a species, and we accomplish incredible things.
I also think the future’s always better than the past. Pick any year, then pick another year that’s 100 years earlier, and ask yourself which one of those years you would rather live in. I guarantee you’ll pick the later year. I mean, I think we can all agree that 2020 sucked, right? But I would rather re-live 2020 than live in 1920.
Abbe Wright: Okay, spoilers for Project Hail Mary are ahead! This book definitely goes into new territory for you and has a surprising character introduced. What was it like writing something that completely new?
Andy Weir: It was a lot of fun. This is a significant plot twist in the second act, so if you haven’t read it yet, go do so and come back! Now you’ve been warned. So, our hero comes into contact with an intelligent alien species, actually an intelligent, a single intelligent alien. The skeleton of the book basically is that humans notice that the sun is dimming and they need to do something about it, and they notice that all of the stars in our local area—Alpha Centari, Sirius, and so on—are also dimming, except Tau Ceti, which is a star that’s about 11 lightyears away. For some reason, Tau Ceti is not dimming, and they don’t know why, and they say “if we can maybe find out what’s special about Tau Ceti, then maybe we can save ourselves. Maybe we can reproduce that in our system.”
They take this single-celled organism, which is called astrophage, Greek for “eats stars,” and manage to figure out how to harness its space propulsion ability to make a spacecraft, and they send a crew of three, but only one of them survives the coma that they had to be put in for the trip because it took years, and so Grace is by himself in the Tau Ceti system, and his job is to figure out why is the star Tau Ceti is immune to astrophage. While he’s there, he runs into a large alien spacecraft and they end up kind of figuring out how to talk to each other, working out a language.
The alien is basically a five-legged spider, about the size of a large dog, and it has rocky protrusions on its skin, like armor. Ryland nicknames him Rocky. Rocky communicates in chords and notes, like whale song, and the two of them work out a language. He finds out that Rocky is basically on the exact same mission that he is.
Rocky’s planet is orbiting a star that is also dimming. They also noticed that Tau Ceti isn’t dimming, so they also sent a mission to Tau Ceti to find out why. So, these two decide to work together to solve the common problem, and that’s where we get into the meat of the book, which is really, the story is about a friendship.
Abbe Wright: What was your research like for this book and how did it differ, or how did you build on research that you’d done for previous books?
Andy Weir: A lot of relativistic physics and stuff, of course, and that was just fun for me because I’m that kind of dork. A lot of climatology because there’s a lot of climate science out there about global warming, but I wanted to know what happens if the sun’s output goes down? Not a lot of people have put a lot of thought into that, but it was fun, in a perverse way to be like, well, if the sun’s output goes down, the earth is not getting enough energy, but we can use global warming and the greenhouse effect to retain energy, so earth, while they’re building this space craft to try to save themselves, they’re also going out of their way to cause as much greenhouse effect as possible to retain the energy that we have.
There’s this poor character who’s a French climatologist who is tasked with finding a way to maximize greenhouse gas emissions, and he’s spent his entire life, like trying to do the opposite. He’s spent his entire career trying to fight climate change and now he has been tasked with figuring out what can we do to absolutely maximize the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and he comes up with a pretty good solution.
Abbe Wright: One thing I loved is that this book is dedicated to John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and you have a ship in the book called The Beetles, spelled differently, of course, so why did you decide to make this tribute to the fab four?
Andy Weir: Well, I’m a huge Beatles fan. I always have been, and I, just, the Beatles come up a few, in a few places in the book. I have a bunch of Beatles related Easter eggs in the book, which are fun to find.
Abbe Wright: My final question is: Will there be a movie?
Andy Weir: Well, I never like to say yes until it’s out, but MGM bought the film rights and Ryan Gosling is signed on to play Ryland Grace. He’s also, by the way, a huge Beatles fan. We have Phil Lloyd and Chris Miller lined up to direct and we have Drew Goddard working on the screenplay, who adapted The Martian. And I’m a producer, but I’ll let the real producers do the producing, and I’ll just like stay out of the way.
Abbe Wright: Oh, that is such exciting news. Thank you so much, Andy, for being with us today!