"I don't want to be L. Ron Hubbard": Andy Weir on writing escapism & new book "Project Hail Mary"

"The Martian" author spoke to Salon about what inspired his new sci-fi novel, driving plots and scientific optimism

By Chauncey DeVega
May 3, 2021 10:05PM (UTC)
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Hail Mary by Andy Weir (Photo illustration by Salon/Ballantine Books/Aubrie Pick)

The Age of Trump and what it spawned is science fiction turned into horrible day-to-day reality. In this new dystopia, more than 560,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States, and matters are so dire in India and elsewhere that many countries remain in a state of near total lockdown to prevent spread of the coronavirus plague. 

Meanwhile, neofascists and other members of the global right are continuing their attacks on multiracial and multiethnic democracy. The United States barely survived a coup attempt and lethal attack on the Capitol by Trump's followers. In many ways, today's right-wing movement is a type of death cult that is eager and willing to sacrifice its own members as well as the innocent for "capitalism," "gun rights," and "individual liberty." 

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The surveillance society and surveillance capitalism continue to gain power. The global plutocrats are so powerful (and sociopathic as a class) that they are developing technology to leave the planet instead of committing themselves to solving humanity's problems. 

American's militarized police continue to abuse and kill Black and brown people, the poor, the mentally ill, and other vulnerable populations with few, if any, consequences. As for the rest – the global climate crisis continues what appears to be a near-inevitable march to doom for those humans – especially the poor – who will not be able to escape the natural disasters, new pandemics, conflicts, and other upheavals that will result.

At its core, science fiction as a genre reflects the fears, anxieties, politics, events, and mood of the present. Thus, the immediate question: What type of science fiction (and speculative fiction more broadly) will the Age of Trump and its aftermath produce?

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In an effort to answer that question I recently spoke with author Andy Weir whose first best-sellling novel "The Martian" was adapted by Ridley Scott into a 2015 blockbuster feature film of the same title starring Matt Damon. Weir's other work includes the novel "Artemis" and the beloved short story "The Egg."

Weir's new book is "Project Hail Mary" (May 4, Ballantine Books), in which astronaut Ryland Grace awakens on a spaceship alongside two corpses but without his memories. He learns that he's now the only hope to save humanity and Earth itself, and thus begins his mission in the depths of space where he needs to "science" his way through challenges, plot twists . . . and realizing that he's not entirely alone as he assumed.

In my conversation with Weir, he explains how he balances scientific fact with telling a compelling story with optimism in a desire to distract and make his readers happy. He also reflects on what it means to enjoy success while so many people are suffering from the pandemic and other miseries. 

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At the end of this conversation, Weir offers a hopeful vision of space exploration and suggests that contrary to the concerns of many critics, it will not necessarily be a means for the rich and powerful to exploit the human race by exporting social inequality to the Moon, Mars or other parts of outer space.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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With your new book and other work how does it feel to have success in a moment with the pandemic and so many other horrible things in the world?

There is always trouble in the world, so I'm just going to concentrate on being happy for what I've been lucky enough to have.

I recently spoke to a prominent author who was struggling with feeling good about his new book and trying to reconcile those emotions with the pandemic and all the troubles other people are experiencing.

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I feel that there are always bad things going on in the world. If you choose to feel guilty about every good thing that happens to you then you will never feel good. Even when the world is not in the middle of a pandemic there is still a malaria pandemic in Africa for example. That is not meant to be hyperbolic or a joke. It is just a fact.

There are people dying by the many thousands from the malaria pandemic in Africa. The only difference between then and now with COVID-19 is that we here in the U.S. are experiencing some of the troubles that many other parts of the world have been experiencing as well. The difference is that it's in front of our faces. It is maybe a sad thing to realize, but it also means that there are some 7 billion people on this planet. It is not at any point in my lifetime going to be great for everyone.

There is always going to be some type of major crisis and major sadness and significant loss of life from one thing or another going on in the world. Whether it be a health crisis or starvation or a tyrannical government or what have you, there is always going to be misery on this planet.

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If you make it a rule for yourself that you're not allowed to be happy and everyone else is, or you're not allowed to be happy if there's any large group of people who are downtrodden or having a miserable life, you will never be happy. Happiness will never come to you. You will never allow yourself to just be happy and grateful for the things that the world has given you.

I feel bad for all the suffering. If there's anything I can do to stop it, let me know. But I am not going to base my whole ideology on the notion that I am going to be miserable because somewhere in the world other people are too.  

I'm not heartless. I care. But there is nothing I can do about it. Unless you want to spend your whole life crying you have to compartmentalize.

What type of science fiction writing and other works – and creative arts more generally – do you think are going to come out of this moment?

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My book "Project Hail Mary" was finished before the pandemic. The story involves an alien microbe. It may seem that "Project Hail Mary" is somehow-pandemic related, but that is just pure coincidence. Moreover, this microbe does not infect humans; it infects stars in outer space.

I honestly do not know what is going to come out of this.

I do not think that there is going to be quite as much disease-related science fiction, as one might suspect. We are all going through this pandemic, and when it's over, it will be a common experience. It is not really something we are going to enjoy reminiscing about. We will never forget the experience with the pandemic, but it is not something we are going to want to mentally relive.

My instinct is that the pandemic experience is not going to impact science fiction very much because science fiction and fantasy are on a basic level about escapism. Spend some time in the world of this book so that you can enjoy yourself away from the world that you live in. The last thing anybody wants is for a book to drag them back to the world that they live in.

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What do we do with the feelings and anxieties and other emotions and experiences that are being produced by the pandemic and this crisis overall? It has to impact the creative arts.

I am sure it does impact many artists and their art and psyches. But if you are talking across the whole industry, I have no doubt it will have an effect. However, is you are asking me personally, just one person, I do not put current events or modern analogs or anything of that sort into my stories.

My stories are 100% focused on entertaining the reader with no message or moral. I'm not trying to educate you on anything or change your mind about anything. When you're done with my book, I want you to put it on the shelf, and the only emotion I want you to have is, "That was fun!" and that's it. Then you move on with life. I'm not so arrogant as to think that I have some duty or even the right to tell people what they should think or how to live their lives. I just want it to be fun. It's simple. My books are simple light-hearted reading. They're not deep. They do not have any hidden meaning. I just want you to have fun. That's all.

Once writing is out in the world readers will create their own meaning about the work. Your readers may interpret your work in ways different than you intended. To them it may not just be "light-hearted reading." How do you negotiate that?

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That's up to them. I can't control the minds of my readers. If they received some type of positive messaging where none was intended, well then, I am glad.

If somebody says, "Oh, clearly from reading this book, I must kill people," then I would be very upset, and I would proactively try to counter that. I imagine that the story of mine that hits most of what you are speaking of would be "The Egg." It was a short story I wrote back in 2009. I have received many emails from people who had some sort of personal epiphany while reading "The Egg" and have concluded that it's real. It is their religion now.

I always tell them, "Look, this is a story that I made up. This is fiction. I don't think it's true. I don't think you should think it's true. I just wanted to come up with a system where it turns out life was fair after all, and that's what I came up with. I don't believe it's true." I don't want to be L. Ron Hubbard. I did not want to invent a religion. I just wanted to make an entertaining story. It's really easy for people to fall into the trap of assuming that just because a lot of people are listening to you it then means it is your place to preach to them. I'm not the person you should take life advice from.

As a writer, what does it mean for you to tell a good story? What are your core principles?

I come from a software engineering background. For 25 years, I was a computer programmer. In my brain, I have drawn an analog between writing software and writing a book. I have a very obsessive customer-focused approach. I am absolutely focused on how the reader will feel and what the reader will think while reading the book. I want to make a fun, engaging, and interesting experience for them.

I want them to really enjoy themselves. I want them never to be bored. I have this policy where I put myself in the mindset of a reader. I reread my work and I say to myself, "Okay, let's say I'm a reader. It's one in the morning. I've been plugging along in this book. I'm really tired. I should really go to sleep. At what point do I put the book down for the night? What paragraph am I on?

"Where is it where the story dips or gets slow enough or expositional enough that I can put that book down and go to sleep for the night?" I want to find that part and get rid of it. I don't want the reader to go to sleep at night. I want them to stay up all night, reading my book because they can't put it down.

How do you structure your writing? What of creating a narrative and plot?

I'm a very plot-driven author. My plots are what makes my books so popular. My books are also popular because of their optimism. I do have a lot of faith in humanity. I believe that we are a very good species. I also believe that in the long run we are always making the Earth better. It might not seem that way, but if you pick any year in human history and then imagine the year 100 years prior to that, and then you are going to have to go live through one of those years, you will almost always choose the latter year.

We can agree that 2020 was horrible. But I would rather relive 2020 than live through 1920. I have this optimistic approach that people respond to.

What of the global climate emergency? That seems like an obvious counterargument.

It is not going to end life on Earth. We are doing damage to the environment, but people are acting like we've got 20 years before the planet cracks in half and flies off. The environmental damage is bad. This is not necessarily what I want to happen, but what I think will happen is that we are not going to be able to reverse global climate change because we do not have a global government that can tell individual countries to stop with their emissions.

What I think will happen is that we are going to deal with the crisis through amelioration. We're going to adjust to it. We're going to say, "Okay, ocean levels are rising. Stop issuing building permits close to the water. Oh, polar bears are dying? Okay. Let's make a polar bear preserve. We can't grow wheat in this area anymore even though we used to for thousands of years but now the environment has changed. Okay. Well it turns out we can grow barley, so let's do that."

I think that's what's going to happen. I am not suggesting that is the ideal solution.

I also do not believe that any policy or idea that we have for reversing or even slowing down climate change is going to be of any use or do any good until the technology develops to the point where there is a zero-emissions energy source that is cheaper than fossil fuels.

How do you balance science and storytelling? A great example of this question in practice would be the transporter in "Star Trek." Supposedly Gene Roddenberry said something like, "We invented the transporter because I didn't want to have to land the ship. it would be too expensive. Plus with a transporter, we can do stories that revolve around it."

My personal choice is to go really heavy on the science. I do not break or bend the laws of physics – except for some minor violations that are not immediately obvious to people. For example, when one starts doing big things like the transporter in "Star Trek" it leads to so many questions that can cause problems with your settings and genre. Why don't they just transport bombs onto enemy ships? That was later explained as not being possible because a ship's shields will block a transporter. That's fine. It makes sense. But what about where there are transporters accidents on "Star Trek" where people get duplicated? Does that mean it could be done on purpose? So then, here is one of the greatest scientists of all time. Can we then make 50 of them and get him or her to work on some problem?

When you're coming up with some sort of fake physics for your show that is fine. But you have to be ready to answer those questions that a reader or viewer might have.

I don't care if the science is realistic or not. I don't care if it's even possible. You want a faster than light drive? No problem. I have no problem with that. What I want is consistency. The technology has been established in the story. I want it to work the way you said it does all the time. Inconsistency pulls me out of a story.

What is the story you tell yourself about how you arrived at this point in your life and career?

When I was starting college at 18, I knew that I was interested in computers. But I have always wanted to be a writer as well. Should I go into literature or should I go into computer science? I thought about it for a long time. I want to be a writer, but I also wanted regular meals. Thus, my decision to go into computer science. I don't regret it at all. I was always writing. Much of it was not very good. Once I wrote "The Martian" it became popular. The next thing I know, I was making much more money from my writing than I was from my software engineering. I never had to take that leap of faith that so many other people have done who are writers.

I was always doing the thing that made me the most money. When you say, how do you feel about that? Is this something that was just meant to be? Well, I don't really believe in that level of fate, but in terms of my own life path, I just consider myself very lucky. When I wrote "The Martian," I had no idea that it would have this kind of appeal. I was writing it for hardcore nerds who literally want to see the math. I still don't 100% understand what I did right, but I'm glad it happened.

Many writers and others who are creative for a living have struggled with self-doubt and being overly critical of their own work. How have you confronted those feelings?

You are always going to have a ton of self-doubt when you are a writer and probably in lots of other creative professions as well. It's also a matter of being really honest about your prior works. A person is not going to be an amazing and fantastic writer right out of the gate. You have to be bad at it for a while before you get good at it. We're all bad at what we do when we first start, and there's no shame in that. You have to learn.

What is your creative process like? And where did the idea for "Project Hail Mary" come from?

Most always, I start off by thinking of some scientific principle and that then leads to a book. For "The Martian," I was thinking about, and not for book purposes, how are we going to put humans on Mars? I was thinking about the profile of a Mars mission, and then what the crew would do if things went wrong and how the mission would account for that and make sure people don't die. That led to the idea of "The Martian." For "Artemis," I was thinking of what is humanity's first city that's not on Earth going to be like? I decided it would be on the Moon, and I started designing and developing the city, I made a story that took place in it.

For "Project Hail Mary" it is a little more nuanced. First off, it's a collection of ideas that were unrelated to each other. I had the idea for a spacecraft fuel that could do mass conversion to generate light. I also had the idea of a man waking up with amnesia aboard a spaceship and the kind of the interesting science stuff he would do to even find out he is aboard a spaceship and so on. That's another interesting idea. I also had ideas about what alien life might be like. In "Project Hail Mary" there's "astrophage," which is a microbe that is eating the sun.

Basically, I had a collection of ideas that started to come together really well. In a roundabout way, I went into the junkyard of my brain, picked up a bunch of stuff, and it all happened to fit together really nicely. That is where "Project Hail Mary" came from.

One of my deep anxieties is: Who owns and will own outer space? How much power will huge corporations and immensely rich individuals have over the future of the human race and space exploration and perhaps even colonization? Are my worries misplaced?

I believe that your worries are in fact misplaced. We have already seen a model of exactly what space exploration will be like. It is the ocean. From a legal point of view space really is international waters. No one can claim any territory outside of the Earth. That is because of a very strong treaty that has been abided by for decades. No one is going to own space. No one is going to own orbit. Eventually, there will be so many people on the Moon that they will be a culture and a civilization of their own. Then they would own a part of the Moon that they're on. Other than that, I would say your fears are misplaced and you needn't worry. As proof, I offer the Earth's oceans. There is profit to be made off of the oceans with deep sea oil drilling. That could cause problems, but it is not. Everyone still understands that the oceans are owned by humanity collectively, so space will be no different.

How do you want the readers to feel after they finish reading "Project Hail Mary"?

I want them to feel good. I write feel-good stories with what I consider to be feel-good endings, and I want them to realize, "Oh, that's nice." I want the readers to wish there was more. Always leave them wanting more.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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