Saturday, April 05, 2014

Andy Weir interview

Andy Weir is a software engineer (a career he started at the age of 15!) and a lifelong enthusiast regarding space exploration and manned spaceflight--including relativistic physics and orbital mechanics. He is also the author of The Martian (reviewed here by Daryl Maxwell), which is his first novel. It was released in February of this year, and debuted on the bestseller lists of The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Publisher's Weekly. Recently, Andy agreed to be interviewed for the Burbank Library Blog.
What was your inspiration for The Martian?
I was speculating on how a manned Mars mission would work, so I had to consider emergency scenarios. Those scenarios started to sound really cool, so I made a main character to suffer through them all.
I understand that you originally published The Martian on your blog in a serialized format and then as a completed e-novel before it appeared in print. Can you talk a bit about how that affected the publishing process? How did you end up with Crown/Random House?
I didn’t have any intention to publish it when I first wrote it. I just posted chapters to my website as a sort of serial presentation (though I was clear to my readers that it’s a book, not a serial, and I might change earlier chapters without warning). Once I finished, some readers requested I make an e-book version, so I did and posted it to my site. Then readers asked if I’d post it to Kindle, because it can be a hassle to download an e-book and manually install it on an e-reader. So I posted it to Kindle, which has a minimum price of 99 cents, so that’s what I set the price to. It sold very well, and attracted the interest of Crown Publishing.

How did the novel evolve and change as it moved through these different formats? Are there any major changes between the earlier versions and the most recently published version? (I’m curious about a scene at the end of an earlier version between a child and Mark after he returns to earth.)
There were no major changes from version to version. I had a professional copy editor do a pass before I self-published it to Kindle. Later, during the publishing process with Crown, we made a lot of non-plot-related edits. But they were focused on making minor characters unique from one other, rewording clumsy paragraphs, etc. The book is much better for it, and far more polished.

Is Mark Watney inspired or based on a specific individual (or group of people)?
Not really, no. He’s kind of like the comedy sidekick would be in other movies.

There are a lot of references to '70s television/music in The Martian. What’s your favorite '70s television show? Band? Are you a fan of disco?
TV show: “Doctor Who” (still my favorite TV show to this day).  
Band: Abba.
Disco: Yes, actually I love disco. My friends give me all sorts of grief about it.

Favorite ABBA song?
"Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)". That's some proper disco there.

What’s currently sitting on your nightstand?
Robot Dreams, by Isaac Asimov. I’m one of those guys who reads books over and over.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?
Tunnel in the Sky, by Robert Heinlein.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Niven, and Pratchett. I’m not really into fantasy, but I love Pratchett books.

What is a book you've faked reading?
I couldn’t get through Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein. Some people consider it the greatest sci-fi novel of all time, but I just couldn’t keep interest. I can name 10 other Heinlein novels that I think are far better. So when people start talking about it I just nod and smile.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
Friday, by Heinlein. I was a teen-ager at the time. It’s had several covers, but Google around and you’ll figure out which one grabbed my attention. (When contacted to confirm the cover, Andy said that the cover to the right "grabbed me right by the teen hormones and made me buy it.")

Can you tell me a book that changed your life?
Red Planet, by Heinlein. I was the right age when I read it to really get into it and fantasize about living on Mars. It was the first time I read an entire book in a single day.

Is there a book for which you are an evangelist? (i.e., you think everyone should read it)
Yes, I generally hassle people to read Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett. It’s not the first book in the Discworld series, but it’s a stand-alone story that shows off all the coolest parts of the mythos. Plus, it’s just a really good story.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov. I think it’s the best sci-fi novel ever written. (Yes, all right, it’s a short story collection. Whatever.)

What are you working on now?
I’m working on another hard sci-fi novel. I won’t say more than that because I haven’t pitched it to the publisher yet and I like them to hear things from me first.

Here's a bonus from Andy:

Eight tips for surviving on Mars, by Andy Weir


So you want to live on Mars. Perhaps it’s the rugged terrain, beautiful scenery, or vast natural landscape that appeal to you. Or maybe you’re just a lunatic who wants to survive in a lifeless, barren wasteland. Whatever your reasons, there are a few things you should know:

1: You’re going to need a pressure vessel.
Mars’ atmospheric pressure is less than one percent of Earth’s. So, basically, it’s nothing. Being on the surface of Mars is almost the same as being in deep space. You’d better bring a nice, sturdy container to hold air in. By the way, this will be your home forever. So try to make it as big as you can.

2: You’re going to need oxygen.
You probably plan to breathe during your stay, so you’ll need to have something in that pressure vessel. Fortunately, you can get this from Mars itself. The atmosphere is very thin, but it is present and it’s almost entirely carbon dioxide. There are lots of ways to strip the carbon off carbon dioxide and liberate the oxygen. You could have complex mechanical oxygenators or you could just grow some plants.

3: You’re going to need radiation shielding.
Earth’s liquid core gives it a magnetic field that protects us from most of the nasty crap the sun pukes out at us. Mars has no such luxury. All kinds of solar radiation gets to the surface. Unless you’re a fan of cancer, you’re going to want your accommodations to be radiation-shielded. The easiest way to do that is to bury your base in Martian sand and rocks. They’re not exactly in short supply, so you can just make the pile deeper and deeper until it’s blocking enough.

4: You’re going to need water.
Again, Mars provides. The Curiosity probe recently discovered that Martian soil has quite a lot of ice in it. About 35 liters per cubic meter. All you need to do is scoop it up, heat it, and strain out the water. Once you have a good supply, a simple distillery will allow you to reuse it over and over.

5: You’re going to need food.
Just eat Martians. They taste like chicken.

6: Oh, come on.
All right, all right. Food is the one thing you need that can’t be found in abundance on Mars. You’ll have to grow it yourself. But you’re in luck, because Mars is actually a decent place for a greenhouse. The day/night cycle is almost identical to Earth’s, which Earth plants evolved to optimize for. And the total solar energy hitting the surface is enough for their needs.

But you can’t just grow plants on the freezing, near-vacuum surface. You’ll need a pressure container for them as well. And that one might have to be pretty big. Just think of how much food you eat in a year and imagine how much space it takes to grow it.

Hope you like potatoes. They’re the best calorie yield per land area.

7: You’re going to need energy.
However you set things up, it won’t be a self-contained system. Among other things, you’ll need to deal with heating your home and greenhouse. Mars’s average daily temperature is -50°C (-58°F), so it’ll be a continual energy drain to keep warm. Not to mention the other life support systems, most notably your oxygenator. And if you’re thinking your greenhouse will keep the atmosphere in balance, think again. A biosphere is far too risky on this scale.

8: You’re going to need a reason to be there.
Why go out of your way to risk your life? Do you want to study the planet itself? Start your own civilization? Exploit local resources for profit? Make a base with a big death ray so you can address the UN while wearing an ominous mask and demand ransom? Whatever your goal is, you'd better have it pretty well defined, and you'd better really mean it. Because in the end, Mars is a harsh, dangerous place, and if something goes wrong, you’ll have no hope of rescue. Whatever your reason is, it better be worth it.

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