As a lifelong fan of science fiction, I’m not embarrassed to admit that sometimes the genre can fall a bit short in a couple of areas; humor and actual science. Much of the early literary sci-fi I’ve read in my life came from greats like Ray Bradbury (my all-time favorite author), H.G. Wells, Frank Herbert, Octavia Butler, Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Ursula Le Guin—all giants of the genre. In later years, I came to appreciate authors like Kim Stanley Robinson, Stephen Baxter and Ted Chiang. Then in early 2015, I got wind of a very popular book that somehow (?) escaped this lifelong Mars lover’s radar. “The Martian” was written by a newly minted author named Andy Weir, and it was being made into a movie, which was set to debut that fall.
Well, a book that embraced real-life science and involved survival on Mars definitely perked my ears up. When I was a kid, one of my favorite B-movies was a little undiscovered gem called “Robinson Crusoe On Mars” (1964), which was hopelessly outdated in its science, but had a genuine earnestness in its tale of an astronaut’s survival on the red planet. Personally, I think it belongs on the same shelf as other survival epics, such “Cast Away” (2000), despite its admittedly goofy title (the Criterion release Blu-Ray agrees with me). Despite my affection for the movie, I’ve always felt it could’ve used an updating, given the vast sum of knowledge of Mars acquired since Mariner 4’s fleeting flyby in 1965. From what I was hearing, Weir’s book sounded like a granted wish. Weir’s book began as a serialized online blog that became so popular he was soon offered a near-simultaneous publishing and movie deal. “The Martian” went to print in 2011, and the faithful movie adaptation, by screenwriter Drew Goddard, would follow four years later.
Note: Weir had a long career as an IT software engineer for various companies before the success of “The Martian” launched his full-time writing career. As I’ve heard Weir say on various convention panels, he was still working in an “Office Space”-style cubicle when he got the call that “The Martian” was being considered as a big budget Hollywood movie!
The Martian (2011).
Better late than never, I finally grabbed a paperback copy of “The Martian” while visiting a Barnes and Noble in June of 2015 (four months before the film was due in theaters), and I could not put it down. It was the most exciting first-person Mars experience I’d ever read. The opening throws the reader right into the action, beginning with dying astronaut Mark Watney stranded on the surface of Mars—a piece of antenna piercing his suit and his oxygen running out. From there, the story flashes back in time a little to tell of a sandstorm that caused his crewmates to presume the missing scientist-astronaut was dead, forcing them to abort their mission as the storm threatened to topple their spacecraft. Forced to perform surgery on his own injury, Mark realizes he will be alone on Mars for years. Mark Watney is given the arduous reality of staying alive (“science the shit out of this thing”), and he does so with wit, a wonderfully foul tongue, and a knack for problem-solving. Before long, Mark is growing potatoes using his own manure, reviving the 1997 Pathfinder lander for use as a communications tool, and turning his Mars SUV into a de-facto mobile home. Trekking across the Martian landscape, he goes off in search of a fully-fueled return vehicle, Ares IV, which was waiting to take a later crew into orbit. The final phase of the book sees an exhausted, malnourished Mark forced to strip his newfound ride home into a flying gas can for optimum liftoff weight and acceleration. With it, he blasts into orbit for a one-shot rendezvous with his fast-returning mothership, Hermes.
Despite the novel’s healthy respect for science, Andy Weir is usually the first to admit that his fictional sandstorm which strands Watney on Mars is one of the few deliberate scientific fudges to make the story work. A real-life dust storm in Mars’ ultra-thin atmosphere would be little more than a mild, dirty breeze. Weir made the choice to heighten the sandstorm’s intensity to an Earth-pressure level so that it could threaten to topple the return vehicle of Mark’s crewmates. Most of the science in the book, done via Google research, is otherwise sound. “The Martian” isn’t space fantasy; this is science-fiction with a welcome emphasis on science. Mark doesn’t come across a magical alien “Friday” or some mysterious ‘unknown substance’ with fantastical properties to help him out. The book is about going to Mars with current technology and means—no aliens, and no semi-magical elements unique to Mars. That Mark survives his extended tour on Mars is a foregone conclusion, yet the reward feels both well-earned and deeply satisfying. The science and the characters’ patience pays off. This is a feel-good novel, despite the harshness of Mark’s solitary existence on a cold, near-airless world with no respect for the needs of humans.
The 2015 Ridley (“ALIEN”) Scott directed movie was smartly faithful to the book. Making only a few minor deletions and some changes to secondary characters, Mark’s story is essentially the same as what is told in the book. Much of Mark Watney’s experience on Mars is told in first person from the character’s perspective—something that the movie was able to retain via personal logs and GoPro camera recordings. I’ve written at length about the book in this column before, most recently on why “The Martian” was the perfect film (and book) during safe-distancing and quarantine, so I won’t rehash all of that here.
Note: The movie changes the ethnicity of some of the book’s characters. The novel’s Venkat Karpoor is now Vincent Karpoor (Chiwetel Umeadi Ejiofor), changing the character from Indian to Indian-African American (Ejiofor is British, but does a solid American accent; the character makes a reference to his partial Hindi heritage in the film). Ridley Scott also inexplicably cast blonde, blue-eyed actress Mackenzie Davis as the formerly Korean-American Mindy Park.
I finished reading “The Martian” a few days before meeting Andy Weir at San Diego Comic Con 2015, after a panel on the future of manned space travel (also on that panel was future International Space Station astronaut Victor Glover). Cosplaying as Fred Flintstone during the panel (as one does at Comic Con), I was seated in the front row of the auditorium, when Weir joked that “Fred Flintstone seems very excited about the movie.” After the panel, we posed for a quick photo in the corridor, and I told him that I looked very forward to his next book.
Which came out a couple of years later…
At San Diego Comic Con 2017, I would see Andy Weir for a third time (we had a joke that I was his designated stalker), with the debut of his second novel “Artemis” (2017). While still a space story, or more accurately, a lunar colony story, “Artemis” would be as different as possible from “The Martian.” About the only elements in common are a witty, problem-solving protagonist and a healthy respect for real-world science (particularly physics and chemistry).
“Artemis” (named after the twin sister of Apollo…nice) introduced a character very far from white male astronaut-botanist Mark Watney. Set in the 2080s, the book’s first-person protagonist is a 26 year-old Saudi woman named Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara, who has been living on the moon since she was six. Working as a porter and occasional smuggler, Bashara is contracted by a wealthy industrialist for a very lucrative job involving sabotage of a competitor’s anorthite harvesting vehicles. Barely completing the job before being spotted by an old adversary, Dale (a cop who stole her boyfriend), she returns to find her client murdered, leaving an orphaned daughter. As Jazz gets deeper and deeper into corporate intrigue, she manages to steal an important package marked “ZAFO.” Taking the case to her tinkerer friend Svoboda (Russian for “freedom”), Jazz learns that ZAFO is “Zero Attenuation Fiber Optic”, which promises to revolutionize communications in the same way the internet revolutionized communication in the late 20th and earlier 21st centuries. Jazz also learns that the dead client’s rival is poised to take over the colony with his crime syndicate. With her own back against a wall, a desperate Jazz risks deportation to the gravitationally-challenging Earth by putting together an “Ocean’s Eleven”-style team for another act of sabotage which will set things right… and which nearly kills her. Unlike the characters in “The Martian,” the characters of “Artemis” exist in a grayer world, both ethically and literally.
Note: A lesson learned in the book’s final chapters; breathing oxygen is a precious, beautiful thing.
The story goes into the future from “The Martian” and into a time where a lunar colony is thriving, and to where space travel is considerably less exotic than it is today. We see a moon no longer crewed solely by astronauts and scientists. Artemis has hotels, restaurants, small indoor parks, and, of course, a thriving underworld filled with smugglers, mobsters, illegal profiteers and other shady characters. The book is essentially a heist story; a cross between “Ocean’s Eleven” and 1969’s “Moon Zero Two.” Jazz Bashara, like Mark Watney, has a quick sense of humor as well as a scrappy survivor’s respect for logic and common sense. Jazz’s father Ammar, a devout Muslim welder, regrets his daughter’s life choices, but he also imparted to her a working knowledge of machinery that has served her well in her profession of smuggling. Despite Jazz Bashara being very different from Mark Watney, there is much commonality in their gallows’ humor and application of real-world science. While “Artemis” hasn’t quite enjoyed the critical passion of “The Martian,” it was quite a bold choice for Weir to stray so far from his proven success, and I applaud him for it. Rumors of the movie adaptation (including writer/director choices) have been bouncing around for a while, but nothing concrete has materialized, largely thanks to the pandemic. If a movie version hopes to maintain the fully immersive lunar colony environment of the book, it will require a healthy budget to make that happen. Casting of Jazz Bashara will be critical as well.
The Audibles audiobook version, which I’d listened to after reading the book, featured actress Rosario Dawson (“Clerks II,” “The Mandalorian”) doing the reading, and her voice set the right tone for Jazz—that perfect mix of mischievousness and hard-luck survivor that made her such a fun character in print. Dawson really nailed it, just as she recently did with the live-action version of fallen Jedi knight Ahsoka Tano in “The Mandalorian.” That said, if and when “Artemis” is ever put before cameras, I only hope they don’t whitewash Jazz with a popular caucasian actress (i.e Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell”). Despite her own unorthodoxy, Jazz’s Saudi-Islamic heritage is a large part of her identity, and it plays a key role in the story as well. If a future movie adaptation is handled with care, it’d certainly make for a welcome change of pace from over-the-top superhero and starship fantasies.
Project Hail Mary (2021).
Speaking of starship fantasies, Weir’s latest novel, “Project Hail Mary” goes into areas his previous novels haven’t—interstellar travel, as-yet unknown substances and yes, alien life. But before anyone gets their spacesuit thermal underwear in a bunch, it’s done with the same care and applied scientific methodology as “The Martian” and “Artemis.” And, like Weir’s previous books, I’m pleased to write that “Project Hail Mary” is a real page turner as well. It almost physically pained me to have to put it down to eat and, you know, do other life stuff…
Awakening from a long coma aboard a mysterious, semi-automated starship next to a pair of long-desiccated corpses, an amnesiac man struggles to get his bearings and to learn why he is there. Through a series of dawning flashbacks, the man learns he is Ryland Grace, a former scientist-turned-middle school teacher who is humanity’s last shot for survival. Ryland’s earlier research into the mysterious dimming of the sun leads to the discovery of “Astrophage,” a new microscopic organism that exists between the sun and the orbit of Venus, where it uses the planet’s carbon dioxide to spawn. These organisms can absorb tremendous amounts of energy, which they expel (very efficiently) as waste radiation. While this space borne parasite is threatening our sun as well as other local stars, the local star of Tau Ceti (roughly 12 light years away) seems to be immune from Astrophage infection. An international consortium hurriedly puts together a spaceship that harnesses the extremely energy-efficient Astrophage for propulsion in a final ‘Hail Mary pass’ to save Earth. Astrophage allows the vehicle to travel much faster than traditional rockets or nuclear power. It’s hoped that Ryland will arrive at Tau Ceti with a narrow margin of time remaining to crack the mystery of that star’s immunity before our own sun is doomed. With his two crewmates dead from their too-long comas, Ryland believes he’s all alone—until he meets another lone space traveler arriving at Tau Ceti to solve the same mystery.
Note: I don’t want to get too spoilerish here, but the alien’s biology is truly fascinating. What’s also refreshing is that the alien isn’t some godlike creature who hand-waves everything away with magic-tech. Nicknamed “Rocky,” the 40-Eridani native’s technology is, in some ways, more primitive than our own. Rocky isn’t some pointy-eared, bumpy-headed human nor does he speak fluent American-accented English or breathe oxygen-nitrogen, either. Rocky is truly alien, but with just enough common threads of emotion and intellect to make connection with Ryland possible. He’s also, most usefully, one hell of an engineer.
Once again, Andy Weir strives to make easygoing schoolteacher Ryland Grace as far from the foul-mouthed, well-trained astronaut Mark Watney as possible. For example, Ryland is a more naive man who, unlike Mark, never swears (a habit no doubt picked up from teaching kids). Also unlike Mark, didn’t bravely volunteer for Project Hail Mary because he had ‘the right stuff,’ either—far from it, in fact. Acting initially as a technical advisor to the project, Ryland has zero appetite for space travel, and wishes only to get back to his quiet life of teaching after the mission is launched. However, a last-minute accident at Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan forces project leader Eva Stratt’s hand—and the formidable Stratt is not a woman who takes ‘no’ for an answer. “Project Hail Mary” has a few elements in common with Weir’s first novel; a lone human astronaut combatting incredible odds and frustrating setbacks in order to accomplish a vital mission. Unlike Mark Watney, Ryland Grace isn’t concerned so much with his own survival as he is with the survival of his planet…and the planet of his newfound friend Rocky. The stakes are obviously much higher this time, as the title implies. “Project Hail Mary” is easily Weir’s most ambitious novel to date.
Needless to say, “Project Hail Mary” would make for a fascinating, ambitious, and thought-provoking film, and if the rumors are to be believed? The movie is in development right now, with rumors of “First Man” star Ryan Gosling (also of “Blade Runner 2049”) possibly starring in the role of Ryland Grace. If true, this could be dream-casting, as Gosling has a knack for intelligent yet soft-spoken characters. While IMDb isn’t always the most reliable source of information, it lists the movie as in-development, with “Martian” screenwriter Drew Goddard attached as well as directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“The Lego Movie”). Lord and Miller are also listed as attached to the film version of “Artemis,” though it’s not yet clear if that project is still on track. At this rate, Andy Weir could soon be a lighter, wittier, sci-fi equivalent of Tom Clancy.
The Egg and Other Short Stories (2009).
There is also a collection of Andy Weir short stories written prior to “The Martian” that I’ve not yet read (gasp!) and are available only as an Audibles audiobook exclusive. Weir’s breakout short story “The Egg” is, by accounts, a philosophical, witty meditation on reincarnation and religion (a topic he seems to consciously avoid, save for “Artemis” with regards to Jazz’s Muslim father).
The story’s God tells a recently deceased character that he existed (and will exist) at every moment in every life of every human who has ever lived. As soon as my current broken toe heals, and I can go on my weekly long walks again, the audiobook of “The Egg” will be next on my Audibles playlist. All of Weir’s books are available as Audibles audiobooks, and his three novels are available in both audio and print versions.
Wherever You Go, There You Are.
With his quick wit, passion for outer space and knack for problem-solving, author Andy Weir brings his former career as a software engineer to bear on the heady sci-fi issues within his books, turning previously insurmountable challenges into matters of patience, science and rational-thinking. In a world that seems to stray ever further from rationality, it’s refreshing to read an author whose humor and ingenuity keeps his stories and characters well grounded… even when they find themselves on the Moon, or Mars, or in orbit around Tau Ceti.
Images: 20th Century Fox, Amazon, Audibles, Author, Unknown.