Before The Martian was a Golden Globe-winning movie with a worldwide take of more than $630 million, and before it was a novel from publishing giant Random House, computer programmer and webcomic creator Andy Weir was posting on his blog one chapter at a time of his story about an astronaut stranded alone on the Red Planet.
With feedback from those early readers with backgrounds in science and engineering, supplementing Weir’s own deep research, The Martian grew into one of the most detailed hard science fiction books to be embraced by the general reading public in recent memory. We recently caught up with Weir on how he’s approaching his next book (reportedly about a low-level criminal living on the moon), balancing realism with the demands of storytelling, and whether he recommends self-publishing to aspiring writers.
Do you feel like The Martian would have been possible or as successful without the input you received when your first chapters were posted on your blog?
It certainly would have been possible, but it wouldn’t have been as scientifically accurate. I made a number of science errors (especially in chemistry, my weakest discipline) while writing the book. My readers set me straight.
Given your high profile now as an author, do you think you could write a novel with that same process again, getting feedback from readers along the way?
I am using the more traditional method now. I don’t really have a choice. I already have a deal for my next book, and the publisher naturally doesn’t want me posting it online for free.
What have the success of the book and the movie shown you about the public's appetite for realism (or at least a careful attention to detail) in science fiction?
I think there’s an interest in scientific accuracy, but really what the public wants is a compelling and interesting story. The science helped make The Martian believable, but the book wouldn’t have been any good if the readers didn’t like the main character and the challenges he faced.
You’re a fan of Doctor Who, which almost makes a point of avoiding using actual science to explain how anything works. Why do people respond just as passionately to sci-fi stories with less basis in reality as they do to technically detailed stories like The Martian?
I think it’s all about storytelling. The science (or lack thereof) provides a background. But Doctor Who is nothing without the Doctor. That’s why people watch it. They’re happy to watch him reverse the polarity of the neutron flow to blow up the Dalek ship’s main engines, or they’re happy to watch him sword-fight with a medieval French knight.
You’ve said you were always aware that the sandstorm on Mars that strands Mark Watney would never be that destructive, because of the low atmospheric density on Mars. How did you decide where accuracy was most important, and where you could sacrifice accuracy for the sake of the story?
I just used gut feel, for the most part. The main objective is to entertain the reader. I had a different disaster in mind that could have stranded him there and been scientifically accurate. It was an MAV engine test gone awry. But it just wasn’t as cool. It’s a man-vs.-nature story, so I wanted nature to get the first punch in.
Would you recommend self-publishing to aspiring novelists, or is it better to pursue a publication deal?
If at all possible, go for a traditional print deal. What a traditional publisher provides is a powerful and skilled publicity and marketing engine for your book. The Martian wouldn’t have been anywhere near the success it was without Random House’s publicity and marketing people.
Are you going to incorporate anything that you’ve learned from your recent experiences with NASA astronauts and engineers into your next book?
I’ve learned a few things, and they might show up in my next book. No spoilers, though.