Meet the Man Behind The Martian

Author Andy Weir speaks with GOOD about science fiction, science fact, and seeing his story on the big screen

Good science fiction inspires us to imagine distant worlds and “what if” scenarios. Great science fiction fools us into believing—if only briefly—those worlds are real. By that measure, author Andy Weir’s The Martian is great science fiction. The story of a lone astronaut left to fend for himself after his crewmates, thinking he’s been killed, abandon him on the surface of Mars, Weir exhilaratingly blends science fiction with science fact, creating a not-too-distant future that feels convincingly real. As readers, it occasionally becomes necessary to step back and remind ourselves that, in fact, we still have a long, long ways to go before NASA, or any other space agency, will be able to put a human being on another planet.

A computer programmer by training, Andy Weir spent years researching and extrapolating upon the intricacies of interplanetary space travel to tell his story as accurately as possible. And it shows; The Martian is equal parts rollicking adventure and science lesson. The book not only frames complex physics, electrical engineering, and even botany as easily accessible subjects for even the most casually science-minded reader, but also ultimately serves to acclimate us to the concerns that will inevitably be at the heart of any eventual manned mission to Mars.

The Martian, Weir’s first and only novel to date, is, like its titular hero, a survivor, having ascended through multiple publishing iterations: First as free content on Weir’s website, then a 99-cent eBook, and ultimately, in print. Now, after hitting the bookstands in 2011, The Martian is being transformed once again, this time into a big-budget motion picture starring Matt Damon, and helmed by Ridley Scott. The film, which opens on October 2, is already being heralded as one of the best of the year. As the movie industry floods theaters with comic-book heroics and supernatural sequels, The Martian, with its focus on hard science, stands out.

While in Canada for the Toronto International Film Festival premier of The Martian, Weir spoke with GOOD about his optimism for visiting other planets, how to blend science fiction with science fact, and what how he would handle a year on Mars.

Andy Weir

At its core, The Martian seems to be optimistic about the technology and people that make space exploration happen. Do you see reasons to feel this kind of optimism about space exploration and scientific discovery in the real world?

I think it’s human nature to be cooperative, and that we’re an inherently good species. I also think the world gets better and better over time. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself this: Would you rather be alive right now or in any previous century?

The story strikes a good balance between science fact and science fiction. What sort of research went into establishing a scientific basis for the technology and methodology described in the book?

I’ve been a lifelong space geek, so I started out with more than a layman’s knowledge of how the space program works. Beyond that, it was just a bunch of Google searches for information and lateral thinking in my spare time.

You ushered you book through multiple iterations, first as free chapters on your personal website, then as a kindle single, and finally as a print edition. How did it feel to hand off the story to a team of filmmakers, and relinquish control of something you’d worked on by yourself for years?

I wasn’t worried. Drew Goddard signed on to write the screenplay, and he loved the book. So he worked hard to keep the feel and events of the book in place. And he consulted me frequently during that process—something he didn’t have to do, he just chose to.

I've seen you advocate in other interviews for more involvement by private companies, such as SpaceX, in space exploration. Why?

I believe the key to humans getting out into space is reducing the cost of getting stuff into orbit. There will be a critical point when technology enables us to send mass into orbit for less than a few hundred dollars per kilogram, and then we’ll have a “space boom.” As soon as it’s possible for a middle-class American to afford a once-in-a-lifetime trip to space, demand for space travel will be effectively infinite, and industry will ramp up to meet it. Eventually, space travel will be like the modern airline industry.

I've read you mention an interest in returning to the moon before we attempt a mission to Mars. What's the thinking there?

The Moon serves as an excellent test bed for eventual Mars exploration technology. Also, we can make fuel there from local resources, which would dramatically reduce the price to get a large ship into a Mars intercept course (because getting stuff off the Moon is a lot easier than getting it off Earth).

You've said that while writing the book, you had no contact with anyone working in any space administration or program. However, since the book's release, you've become something of an ambassador to NASA and for space exploration in general. In what ways has the real NASA surprised or impressed you?

It’s been a dream come true. The main surprise is how calm everything is, even during a crisis.

Say you, Andy Weir, are shipped off to Mars, by yourself, for a one-year stint. You can only bring one music album, one book, and one complete run of a television show. What do you bring?

Music: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band

Book: I, Robot

TV Show: Doctor Who

via Honor Africans / Twitter

The problem with American Sign Language (ASL) is that over 500,000 people in the U.S. use it, but the country has over 330 million people.

So for those with hearing loss, the chances of coming into contact with someone who uses the language are rare. Especially outside of the deaf community.

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Looking back, the year 1995 seems like such an innocent time. America was in the midst of its longest streak of peace and prosperity. September 11, 2001 was six years away, and the internet didn't seem like much more than a passing fad.

Twenty-four years ago, 18 million U.S. homes had modem-equipped computers, 7 million more than the year before. Most logged in through America Online where they got their email or communicated with random strangers in chat rooms.

According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

RELATED: Bill and Melinda Gates had a surprising answer when asked about a 70 percent tax on the wealthiest Americans

"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

RELATED: Bill Gates has five books he thinks you should read this summer.

The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

"It's a computer billboard but it's nationwide and it's several universities all joined together and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time," a producer explains from off-stage.

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

The future generations will have to live on this Earth for years to come, and, not surprisingly, they're very concerned about the fate of our planet. We've seen a rise in youth activists, such as Greta Thunberg, who are raising awareness for climate change. A recent survey indicates that those efforts are working, as more and more Americans (especially young Americans) feel concerned about climate change.

A new CBS News poll found that 70% of Americans between 18 and 29 feel climate change is a crisis or a serious problem, while 58% of Americans over the age of 65 share those beliefs. Additionally, younger generations are more likely to feel like it's their personal responsibility to address climate change, as well as think that transitioning to 100% renewable energy is viable. Overall, 25% of Americans feel that climate change is a "crisis," and 35% feel it is a "serious problem." 10% of Americans said they think climate change is a minor problem, and 16% of Americans feel it is not a problem that worries them.

The poll found that concern for the environment isn't a partisan issue – or at least when it comes to younger generations. Two-thirds of Republicans under the age of 45 feel that addressing climate change is their duty, sentiments shared by only 38% of Republicans over the age of 45.

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