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