Andy Weir

How the cre­ator of The Mar­tian strug­gled to write a sec­ond novel

SFX - - Features - Words by Jonathan Wright /// Pho­tog­ra­phy by Aubrie Pick

what’s it like to have to fol­low up one of the big­gest hit SF books of re­cent years? It’s not a prob­lem most of us will ever have, but this is pre­cisely the sce­nario that faced Andy Weir when, in the wake of The Mar­tian, he be­gan to write a new novel.

But as he worked on a space opera fea­tur­ing “aliens and faster-than-light travel and telepa­thy” en­ti­tled Zhek, things didn’t go well. “I feel like it had a lot of good in­gre­di­ents, but I got 70,000 words in, about three quar­ters of a book-ish, and I was like, ‘This is not good,’” he re­calls. “‘If I were read­ing this book I would have put it down. It’s mov­ing too slow, the plot’s me­an­der­ing, there are too many things go­ing on at once.’ I tried to write this epic tale and I ended up mak­ing a mess, a swamp.”

This was, un­sur­pris­ingly, not a happy rev­e­la­tion. “I talked to my agent, I talked to my ed­i­tor, I talked to my mom and I’m like, ‘I don’t think this is work­ing, I need to write some­thing else,’” says Weir. “And by the way, by this point I have a con­tract…”

The so­lu­tion was to junk Zhek, a book that will never, ac­cord­ing to Weir, see the light of day, al­though there are el­e­ments of it that may be re­worked in a dif­fer­ent con­text. “I’m very, very glad I made that de­ci­sion, al­though it was very hard at the time,” he says. But what to do next? It’s per­haps re­veal­ing that Weir wrote two open­ing chap­ters for dif­fer­ent books for his pub­lisher and agent, and in­vited them to choose which they liked best.

the jAZZ AGe

The re­sult is Artemis, a fast-mov­ing heist story set on the Moon of the late 21st cen­tury. A strug­gling “smug­gler type”, Jazz Bashara, lies at its cen­tre. Ac­cord­ing to Weir, she grad­u­ally took over the novel af­ter start­ing out as “a ter­tiary char­ac­ter”. It’s easy to see why. Jazz is feisty, funny and smart, a Moon na­tive with Saudi Ara­bian roots who’s con­stantly try­ing to work her­self a break – on her own terms rather than those of other peo­ple.

Which on a Moon dom­i­nated by bil­lion­aires is a tough thing to do. Per­haps be­cause of this, some early read­ers of ad­vance copies have seen the book as be­ing about in­equal­ity. This, says Weir, was never his in­ten­tion. “Any­one who thinks there is a po­lit­i­cal mes­sage in here, they are ab­so­lutely wrong,” he jokes. “Point them out, and I will go hit them with a stick.”

None­the­less, eco­nomics does play a huge part in the book. Re­search­ing Artemis, says Weir, he wrote a pa­per to try to ex­plain the com­mer­cial im­per­a­tives of colonis­ing near-Earth space. “I mapped the com­mer­cial space in­dus­try onto the com­mer­cial air­line in­dus­try,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be cor­rect, it just needs to seem right. I’m a writer not an economist.” If boost­ers were more ef­fi­cient so that it cost $6,000 to put a hu­man in or­bit, he rea­soned, “it be­comes eco­nom­i­cally vi­able to have a tourist econ­omy on the Moon.” As some­one “way more in­ter­ested in eco­nomics than other peo­ple” this was im­por­tant to Weir. “I was un­will­ing to en­ter­tain the idea of a Moon city un­til I’d come up with a rea­son why that Moon city ex­ists,” he adds.

Sim­i­larly, The Mar­tian was also metic­u­lously re­searched. In­deed, Weir says he thought he was writ­ing it for a “teeny-tiny niche au­di­ence of hard­core sci­ence dorks”. In the event, noth­ing could have been fur­ther from the truth and the book has to date sold more than five mil­lion copies in its English edi­tions. A block­buster movie star­ring Matt Da­mon as Mark Wat­ney, a botanist left be­hind on the Red Planet af­ter his crew­mates think he has died, fol­lowed.

mArs At­tAcks

The story of The Mar­tian’s suc­cess is all the more re­mark­able when you con­sider Weir was a com­plete un­known when he first be­gan writ­ing the book. Hav­ing pre­vi­ously taken a three-year sab­bat­i­cal from his for­mer day job as a soft­ware engi­neer and writ­ten a novel that didn’t find a buyer, he had grown dis­il­lu­sioned with the world of pub­lish­ing. The Mar­tian first made its way into the world via Weir’s web­site be­fore be­ing re­leased as a self-pub­lished Kin­dle book for 99 cents.

As to why it was such a hit, Weir says he’s not sure, but sus­pects it may have some­thing to do with the cen­tral char­ac­ter and his si­t­u­a­tion. “No­body roots for the vil­lain in a man-ver­sus-na­ture story be­cause the vil­lain is na­ture,” says Weir. “No one’s like, ‘Yeah, get him, Mars!’ So there’s no di­vided loy­al­ties, no ques­tion­able morals and I don’t need to go through a long pe­riod of time mak­ing you un­der­stand the main char­ac­ter’s mo­ti­va­tions. Ev­ery­body im­me­di­ately un­der­stands the idea of, ‘Oh, he doesn’t want to die. Yeah, I don’t want to die ei­ther, so we have that in com­mon.’”

Whether read­ers will iden­tify so closely with Jazz re­mains to be seen, but Weir seems op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture. It’s good to see. The pres­sure of fol­low­ing up The Mar­tian has been a re­cur­ring theme in our con­ver­sa­tion. Bet­ter to look ahead. Weir hopes to set many more nov­els in the colony of Artemis, to cre­ate, he says, “My own lit­tle Ankh-Mor­pork.” Now, that is am­bi­tious.

Artemis is pub­lished on 14 Novem­ber.

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