Interview: Andy Weir, Author Of 'The Martian' Programmer Andy Weir had always longed to read science fiction with a greater focus on science. So, he wrote a novel of his own — which has since become a best-seller and, now, a blockbuster film.
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Sandstorms, Explosions, Potatoes, Oh My: 'Martian' Takes Its Science Seriously

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Sandstorms, Explosions, Potatoes, Oh My: 'Martian' Takes Its Science Seriously

Sandstorms, Explosions, Potatoes, Oh My: 'Martian' Takes Its Science Seriously

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

In the new movie "The Martian," some pretty horrible things happen to the main character, Mark Watney.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MARTIAN")

JEFF DANIELS: (As Teddy Sanders) At around 4:30 a.m., our satellites detected a storm approaching the Aries 3 mission site on Mars.

(SOUNDBITE OF STORM WINDS)

DANIELS: (As Teddy Sanders) The storm had escalated to severe, and we had no choice but to abort the mission. But during the evacuation, astronaut Mark Watney was killed.

RATH: But Watney, played by Matt Damon, survived, and he has use whatever supplies he can find to keep himself alive. "The Martian" is the brainchild of the author Andy Weir, who had always longed for some science fiction that was a little stronger on the science.

ANDY WEIR: So I was sitting around, thinking about how a manned mission to Mars could actually work using today's technology. And I started thinking about all the things that could go wrong, and I realized there was kind of a story there that might be interesting. So I created an unfortunate protagonist and subjected him to all of it.

RATH: Weir started writing the story in serial form, posting installments on his personal website. When he finished, readers begged him to put out an e-book version on Amazon. The self-published version became a runaway bestseller and caught the eyes of both Crown Publishing and 20th Century Fox.

WEIR: The print deal and the movie deal were being negotiated simultaneously, and ultimately, the two deals were agreed to four days apart. That was an eventful week for me. By the way, at the time, I was a computer programmer. And so I was like in my cubicle, fixing bugs, then I'd sneak off to take a phone call about my movie deal, then back to my cubicle to fix bugs. It was pretty surreal.

RATH: (Laughter) Well, obviously, science is important to you. It's important to this story. How, though, would you typically rate the treatment of science in Hollywood science fiction?

WEIR: Well, the purpose of Hollywood is to make something that's fun to watch, and they will happily sacrifice scientific accuracy for entertainment. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

RATH: Doesn't bug you?

WEIR: No, not at all. It doesn't bug me that they do that. It - sometimes it bugs me when there are - when they kind of perpetrate scientific myths. That one bugs me a little bit, kind of like...

RATH: Like what?

WEIR: What was recent the recent one? "Lucy," where they said, well, you know, humans only use 10 percent of their brain. That's one of those science myths that drives me crazy. I want to beat my head up against the wall whenever I hear that. It's one thing to say, like, oh, our ship has a warp drive, and we can travel hundreds of times the speed of light. But it's another thing to actually kind of reinforce a public misconception about science. You know what I mean?

RATH: So you've seen the movie now. How'd they do?

WEIR: Oh, they did a great job.

(LAUGHTER)

WEIR: It is fantastic. Matt Damon just completely nails the character of Watney. He's exactly the way I imagined him. Watney's the protagonist. One thing that Ridley Scott is actually kind of famous for - in a lot of his movies, there are these grand, sweeping, panoramic vistas of the setting. And "The Martian's" no different. There's beautiful shots of just Mars and Martian scenery and terrain. And that's something that's really hard to convey in a book, right? There's only so long you can describe scenery and landscape before the reader throws the book over his shoulder.

RATH: (Laughter).

WEIR: So it was really nice to see that. You get to see the beauty and majesty of this, like, alien planet on the big screen. It is just great.

RATH: What is the - and without spoilers - what's the biggest inaccuracy in the movie, science-wise?

WEIR: Well, in the prolonged, graphic sex scene with the Martian queen...

RATH: (Laughter).

WEIR: Oh, you said no spoilers. Sorry (laughter). The biggest inaccuracy in the movie is straight from the book, so it's also a big inaccuracy in the book - is right at the beginning - the sandstorm that strands him there. In reality, Mars' atmosphere is one-200th the density of Earth's. So while they do get 150-kilometer-an-hour sandstorms, the inertia behind them - because the air is so thin, it would feel like a gentle breeze on Earth.

RATH: (Laughter).

WEIR: A Martian sandstorm can't do any damage, and that - I knew that at the time I wrote it. I had an alternate beginning in mind where they're doing an engine test on their ascent vehicle, and there's an explosion, and that causes all the problems. But it just wasn't as interesting, and it wasn't as cool. And it's a man-versus-nature story. I wanted nature to get the first punch. So I went ahead and made that deliberate concession to reality, figuring not many people will know it. And then now that the movie's come out, all the experts are saying, hey, everyone should be aware that the sandstorm thing doesn't really work, and Mars isn't like that. So I've inadvertently educated the public about the force of Martian sandstorms. You know, I feel pretty good about that.

RATH: (Laughter) That's Andy Weir. His book is called "The Martian," and the movie adaptation is out on Friday. It's been great speaking with you, Andy. Thank you.

WEIR: Thanks for having me.

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