The man behind the Martian
Sen—American science fiction writer Andy Weir, took time out to talk to Sen about his best selling novel The Martian which is currently being made into a film.
The book tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney, stranded alone on Mars, believed dead, when the mission is aborted during a storm. With only scant supplies and no way to contact Earth, Watney must use his scientific knowledge to solve each problem and his wits and ingenuity to survive.
Science is at the heart of the novel, and I began by asking Andy about the meticulous research it involved: "The research effort ended up being tons and tons of Google searches and a bunch of math. I didn’t know anyone in aerospace at the time I wrote the novel, so I was on my own. But I like researching, it’s fun for me. So it wasn’t a problem."
One of the joys of the book is how realistic it feels, I asked Andy how close his outline for a sustained manned presence on Mars is to that which space agencies may adopt in the future: "I tried my best to predict what they would do. I think my fictional version is pretty close. Though new information about Mars, gathered since the book released, has already changed some of that mission profile. For instance, Mars has a lot more water in its soil than we thought. So getting hydrogen for on-site fuel-generation will actually be easier than I depicted."
Scientific accuracy is the keystone of the novel. I wondered if Andy had ever created problems for his character that he then struggled to solve: "Absolutely. It happened all the time. When I came up with a problem I couldn’t solve, I would give him some bit of tech or device that he could misuse to solve the problem. Then I’d go back a few chapters and mention that device here and there so from the reader’s point of view it all makes sense. Sometimes, though, I’d come up with a problem that would just kill him and no minor change to equipment could solve it. When that happened, I’d just go back and remove that problem."
The idea of colonising Mars may seem far-fetched to some people, but the realism of The Martian makes it feel very achievable. I ended by asking Andy what he saw as the prime reasons for a manned base on Mars and how soon he thinks it could be achieved: "I strongly believe we should have a self-sufficient human population somewhere other than Earth. I spent 25 years as a computer programmer and I learned the importance of backing things up. Our odds of extinction fall to nearly zero if we live on two planets. It’ll be a long time before we have an actual colony on Mars (as opposed to a manned mission). It’ll be well after our lifetimes. At least 100 years from now."
The long awaited film adaptation of the book, starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott is due for release in October this year.
Andy Weir, author of The Martian. Image credit: Andy Weir