“I’m pretty much fucked,” reads Andy Weir’s opening passage The Martian. After narrowly surviving a catastrophic accident that left him stranded alone on Mars, those are the first words protagonist Mark Watney writes in his diary. The passage is followed by an elaboration: “That’s my considered opinion: fucked.”
I knew right away that I was going to like this book. After all, even if I were a highly skilled and trained astronaut, the first thing I would say in a situation like that would be no Star Trek style stoic affirmation – it would be a lot of swear words. It’s only human, and Watney, for all his otherworldly brilliance, makes everyone remarkably accessible.
Set in the near future, The Martian tells his story. Watney is an astronaut and member of humanity’s third manned Mars landing, and he is stranded alone on Mars after his crewmates are forced to abandon him during a dust storm (hence the gloomy tone of the book’s opening passage) . Watney must try to survive on only leftover tools and components from the aborted mission, as there is no Home Depot on Mars. Luckily, he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve: he’s damn smart, damn resourceful and really… Real damn optimistic.
We won’t spoil whether Watney manages to escape Mars (at least, not until the end of this piece, in a section clearly marked “HERE’S SPOILERS”). But Weir’s”Apollo 13 meets Cast awaystory managed to break into the New York TimesBestseller list twice, with the hardcover version peaking at number 12 and the just-released paperback currently at number seven. The book has also infiltrated Ars Orbital HQ to become a staff favorite, and we’re not the only ones loving it. The film rights to the book were bought by Twentieth Century Fox and Sir Ridley Scott (van Alien And blade runner fame) is currently directing the movie version. It is tentatively set for a November release.
Weir was kind enough to make time for an interview and we spent over an hour talking about the wild ride he’s been on the Martian, transforming from a mobile app developer with a self-published series to a bona fide best-selling author. In addition to all his success, the author also loved to talk about the future of NASA.
Andy Weir is Mark Watney
Let’s get this out of the way right away: talking to Andy Weir in real life is basically just like having a conversation with Watney. He’s self-deprecating, funny and sharp – and damn good at math.
“He’s like all my good qualities – and better at them – and none of my bad qualities,” Weir joked. “He’s really brave, I’m not. I’m a smartass, he’s a serious smartass!” As we chatted, it quickly became apparent that Weir and Watney have another trait in common: an almost pathological tenacity and problem-solving ability.
Many other news outlets have interviewed Weir and told the story of how The Martian originated, so we will not repeat the story, except for a brief summary. The Martian was written in parts and posted for free on Weir’s website, and received good reviews from a small community of readers. However, attempts to buy the book from publishers ended in failure. After receiving requests from readers for a way to read the book outside of a web browser, Weir repackaged it in .epub and .mobi formats and finally submitted it to Amazon’s online store so that it could be viewed by Kindle readers. could be loaded. Weir had to charge a price for this, since Amazon won’t let you publish Kindle books for free. So Weir sold copies for at least $0.99. Oddly enough, far more people paid to download the Kindle version than to download it for free, and word of mouth pushed the book to the top download lists on Amazon. From there it caught the attention of Crown Publishing, an imprint of Random House, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The book begins as a series of diary entries by Watney, describing his efforts to use his mission’s landing site as a base for survival. After a while, the story expands. The journal entry style takes a backseat and readers get third-party points of view from people on Earth. Weir originally planned for the story to be told only from Watney’s point of view, but realized that was not practical. “I had a general idea of how it would end, but I didn’t know how I was going to get there. But the further I got into it, the more I realized that there was no way NASA would notice him.” was alive – it was inevitable that they’d find out he was alive, and I’d have to show what’s going on there and what they’re doing… And that ended up making it a much better story, so I’m glad I I kinda messed around in that direction because it was a great way to show off the other crew and the folks at NASA, breaking the monotony of log entry after log entry.
The view from Earth adds context to Watney’s struggle for survival, and frankly, the people back home are all good characters. The cast list expands to include NASA administrators, engineers, technicians, and also Watney’s crew members, safely aboard their Hermes spacecraft hurtling back to Earth. The chapters that focus on these characters also give audiences much-needed breathing space, because when Weir turns his narrative lens back on Watney, all hell inevitably breaks loose.