The Big Idea: Andy Weir

Congratulations! Humanity has made it to Mars! And now, as they say, the real troubles are about to begin. For Andy Weir, the author of The Martian, the challenge was not in stranding his hero on the red planet. The challenge was making that stranding exciting and fun to read. How did he do it? Partially by what he didn’t do.


I’ve always had a great love of science, especially anything related to space travel. So it’s little surprise that my first book, The Martian, is about just that. The protagonist, Mark Watney, finds himself abandoned on Mars after his crewmates leave during a critical mission abort. Events conspire to convince the crew and NASA that he died in the disaster, but he is very much alive and needs to work out how to stay that way with the resources he has on hand.

It’s a very simple premise, and certainly one that’s been done before. It’s basically Robinson Crusoe on Mars. In fact, some of you Whatever readers might recall a movie from the 1960’s that was actually called Robinson Crusoe on Mars. That’s how unoriginal the concept is. But my “Big Idea,” such as it is, was to hit that premise with a hard sci-fi approach. I wanted to tackle the question of how a marooned astronaut might actually survive on Mars, using real science to back it up.

That’s where things got fun for me. Being a nerd, I love doing research and science to make sure everything is plausible. Every part of the book is as scientifically accurate as I could make it, from the energy consumption of a rover to the exact process for reducing hydrazine fuel to liberate the hydrogen with which the protagonist could make water.

I spent weeks on research. The hard part was not bragging about it to the reader in the pages of the book itself. “Hey! Reader! I wrote my own software to calculate constant-acceleration orbital trajectories so I could define the path Hermes took to get from Earth to Mars!” It was a constant internal battle to remind myself that the book should be fun to read, not a testament to my ability to do math. So I frustratingly had to leave the bulk of that information out. Though it did make me feel good inside my geeky little soul to know all the math checked out.

And doing all the math had an unexpected and awesome side effect. It provided me with half the plot events in the story. For instance: Mark has to trick out a rover so it has enough power to travel long distances. I could have just hand-waved things and said he made some minor mods like adding a spare battery from the second rover on site. But when I did the math, I discovered that even a backup battery wouldn’t give him enough power to get where he needed to go. That limitation gave Mark a whole new set of problems to tackle and forced him to come up with an ingenious solution that could actually work.

I almost feel like I cheated. I put numbers into equations and plot came out. And of course, poor Mark ended up the victim of every problem I could think of.

Then, there was the issue of exposition. The story features an enormous number of MacGyver-like solutions to complex problems, using space-mission equipment for purposes other than its design. How do I explain all that to the reader? Mark’s on Mars all by himself. He doesn’t have a plucky lab assistant to explain things to and thus inform the audience. The solution I hit on was telling the story mostly through log entries in his journal. And once I started doing that, the novel’s voice immediately fell into place: These were the words of a man who didn’t know if he was going to survive from one day to the next and therefore had no reason to censor himself. I already knew I wanted Mark to be an irreverent smart-ass, but once I had him directly addressing the reader in that format, that voice had found the perfect outlet and the humor started flowing.

I never intended for the book to be as funny as it ended up being, but looking back, I think it had to be—with a premise that has so much potential to be claustrophobic, it’s Mark’s voice and his gallows humor that keep things light and fun for the reader.

In the end, I guess “The Big Idea” is really simplicity: A man is trapped on Mars and wants to survive. Simple as that. It’s something the reader can immediately get behind. And my goal as a writer was equally simple: all I wanted was to do justice to that premise, to play fairly with it and explore all its implications. Following through on that goal ended up giving me all the plot twists and surprises I needed, along with a voice that would keep readers entertained and rooting for my hero.

I’m certainly no more qualified than anyone else to say whether that makes a good book or not, but I do know what I personally like to read—and I think I ended up with a book that readers like me will enjoy.


The Martian: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Like him on Facebook.

52 Comments on “The Big Idea: Andy Weir”

  1. I read this book a while back and totally loved it – I highly recommend it (and have bought copies for other people). Mr. Weir, my compliments. Mr. Scalzi, if you haven’t yet been able to read it yourself, I bet you would really enjoy it.

  2. As Charlie mentioned, I downloaded this from Amazon and read it about a year ago… a satisfying read indeed. Highly recommended.

  3. Got to be one of the coolest sci-fi covers of all time. Simple, but powerful. Read an excerpt at io9 yesterday, immediately put it in my amazon cart for next up. Well done Mr. Weir. Already looking forward to the next one.

  4. I agree. I also read it as an ebook about a year ago, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s particularly good if you want your central plot issues to come from something other than just getting into fights with other people. And while there is a fair bit of cursing in it, I agree that someone in Mark’s position *would* probably be doing quite a bit of cursing.

  5. I read this as a Kindle book before it got pulled because it was being published in print (good for you, Mr. Weir). Really enjoyed it.

  6. Just went to my iBooks store and purchased the eBook version of this. Sounds great! After I finish up reading Alastair Reynolds’ House of Suns on my iPad, this is next!

  7. I’m going to have to pick this up. It looks right up my alley

    On a related note, I’d love to see sales charts for books featured here. I like to think that the violence that Big Idea regularly inflicts on my bank account would be reflected elsewhere.

    A question for Mr. Weir

    After writing a book that is so grounded in science, what is your reaction to further developments that impact on your setting? For example, the announcement a few days ago that there is likely flowing, liquid water on Mars (at least at certain times and conditions).

    Does it feel like your settings starts retroactively drifting away from the real world? Do you see things like this and think “that would have been a great plot point! Why couldn’t it have shown up a year earlier?”

    If someone reads your book in 15 or 20 years, do you think it will still feel grounded, or will our future discoveries retroactively change readers relationship with the book?

  8. In an odd bit of synchronicity, my librarian — and bibliophile — bestie just today published a review of this on her Book Blog, wherein she gave it a 10/10 and also provided some explanation of all the ways and reasons she loved the book. (Mr. Scalzi, I hope it’s okay to provide the link; if not, please remove it for me? Mr. Weir, if you’re interested in reading your praises:

    So between this and that, I think I’m just going to have to buy your book. Oh, the horror!

  9. Read this last summer – one of my favorite books last year! The science and problem solving parts appealed to the inner geek, and the author has a great sense of humor as well.

  10. Andy, I look forward to this book. And if you want to do a version that operates like “Pop-up Video” with notes about what you did to write a certain section, I would LOVE that. I’m an oddball who likes watching sausage being made.

    (For the youth in the audience, “Pop-Up Video” is an 80s/90s thing where music videos have tidbits of information that appear to give you background on details. Things like Sir Mix-a-Lots opinion of the first lot of dancers brought in to audition to dance in the video.

    Laura, nerd about trivia

  11. Bravo! The description makes it sound very, very interesting and really enjoyable. I’m looking forward to it enormously.

  12. The problem with writing a book that relies on hard science to drive the plot is that all too often either there is a mistake in the science (e.g., Ringworld) or we learn something new that invalidates the premise (A Fall of Moondust, anyone?). That’s why plot is more important than science in science fiction; even though the science of Between Planets is dated and wrong (e.g., a watery Venus), the plot still makes it worth reading.

    And that sort of error is even more likely when the book is about something outside the writer’s training. For example, there may be plenty of water in the shallow soil of Mars, depending on the latitude of your astronaut which means that there may be no need for the hydrazine jury rig. So don’t be surprised if you end up with a bunch of MIT students chanting outside your hotel room at WorldCon; it means that they care about your book enough to care about the science in it as well.

    BTW – congratulations on the movie deal!

  13. I listened to the audiobook of this a year or so ago and absolutely loved it. It was really a pleasant surprise. I didn’t expect it to be so damn engaging.

  14. I enjoyed reading this last year. Made me want to plant some potatoes. There’s a good review in the current issue of Entertainment Weekly. Looking forward to future works.

  15. I’m tempted to really turn this book into an experience and instead of tearing through it, instead spread it out and only read the entries as they would have occurred. I started it once but got too busy to keep reading it. Might be a fun experiment for a slow paced reading group!

  16. My wife and I both read this back when it was only available as an eBook, about a year ago. We both thoroughly enjoyed it and were happy to see that it had been picked up for publishing in print. The recognition is well deserved. The book is a very enjoyable, highly technical, read. (Not a common combination.)

  17. I can add a very enthusiastic rec for the audiobook. R. C. Bray’s narration and character voices are marvelous, and a perfect match for the book. It’s pure delight, both story and delivery.

  18. Ryan H said ” On a related note, I’d love to see sales charts for books featured here. I like to think that the violence that Big Idea regularly inflicts on my bank account would be reflected elsewhere.”

    If I bring more hardcovers into the house I’ll get thrown out. I get them from the library and then add selected ones to my (also limited) e-books.

    When I logged into the library site (minuteman, a metro boston consortium) there were 38 holds on the book (counting pending requests and books awaiting pickup). As of now there are 48. How much of those 10 came from the Big Idea, I don’t know, but I’m sure some of ’em did.

  19. I”ve read The Martian and really enjoyed it, however I never felt as if I’d gotten to know the protagonist. Perhaps that’s just a female bias coming through, but a little more angst wouldn’t have hurt. That said, The Martian is an excellent story. Congratulations. :)

  20. Another thumbs up for the audio version. Great narrator. He really brings out the humor in the book. I thought this would have too much hardcore science, but I really enjoyed it.

  21. Having just finished Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (excellent read!), I’ve been looking for a sci-fi novel that would take a more realistic approach to space. “The Martian” seems to fit the bill – thank you!

  22. Oh damn. Add another to the to-be-read stack.

    If it weren’t for the fact that most of my to-be-read stack consists of ebooks (*), our home would be a death trap.

    ((*) Bought from Kobo, but via a local independant bookstore, hurrah.)

  23. The cover and premise remind me of The Lonely Astronaut, right down to the cursing…

  24. Listened to the audiobook just a month or two ago. Outstanding story, and an outstanding performance. I highly recommend it.

    So, when’s the next book? ;-)

  25. I got an ARC and loved it. After quoting several of the protagonist’s more pithy remarks to a friend at work, he asked to borrow it, practically read it overnight (quoting many other pithy remarks back to me in delight) and then immediately pre-ordered it on Amazon. So, well done all around. :-)

  26. Research is the 9/10ths of the iceberg that is under water, the part you don’t see, but without it the berg melts before the current can take it anywhere. The readers will know if you’ve done your homework well.

  27. Picked up a copy last night, forgot to put it in my backpack to read on this morning’s commute. Curses!

    (True story, I met Andy when our mutual friends Casey [as in the adventures of Casey and Andy] and Mary came to visit. They hung out in my living room and completely failed to blow anything up.)

  28. Like other commentators here, I read the book a few months ago. Let me say at once that I thoroughly enjoyed it. But I do have reservations about it. I have a degree in chemistry, I’m a bit of a nerd, I enjoy “hard science” (whatever that is). So I was happy with everything I read in the book and willing to along with it all. I’m exactly the audience it was written for. But I’m a very small part of the total possible audience. The book has far too many infodumps for comfort. There is much too much detail. Far too often the story veers over into the “wiring diagram with dialogue” style that Astounding/Analog was so often criticized for. The urge to skip vast paragraphs so as to get on with the story proper is at times overwhelming.

    Andy says in his article that he found it constantly frustrating that he had to leave out so much of his research. In my opinion, he didn’t leave out nearly enough.

    Those who don’t have the advantage of the scientific training that I have had are unlikely to get anything very much out of this book. I doubt they’ll ever finish it (which is sad, because the ending is utterly perfect).

    Sorry to be a little bit of a wet blanket.

    -Alan Robson

  29. Ari B. – so it IS that Andy Weir. OK. I suspected from the scienceness and the fictionness and (of course) the name.

    Acflory – Most of what make people interesting is interpersonal (conspicuously absent here). I’ve been irritated by impersonal protagonists, so it doesn’t seem to me like wishing to know the character would be exclusive to women.

  30. Bought it yesterday. Finished it tonight. Thoroughly enjoyed it all the way through.

    I thought the technical work fit into the narrative very well. It gave me a good sense of what Mark was dealing with.

    Loved Mark’s first exchange with NASA. I’m still chuckling about it….

  31. I thoroughly enjoyed The Martian. It is just a really great story of survival in the face of impossible odds. It is humorous, it has moments of great tension, it has some great characters, and it pushed all my geeky buttons. What more could you want?
    I listened to an audiobook version (Audible). I pretty much always have an active audiobook going, but I usually listen to books only when traveling or exercising. That was not the case with The Martian. I found myself making time to listen to it — taking my lunch alone, staying up late, skipping television programs. It was that good.

  32. First Big Idea I’ve purchased.

    Enjoying the story, Mr. Weir. A bit heavy on the geek layer but manageable, very manageable given the quality of the story.

  33. My postscript: This is, hands down, the best book I’ve read in a long time. Thanks for plugging it, Mr. Scalzi!

  34. I also loved “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” as a kid. I read the linked excerpt for “The Martian” and had to go get a copy. Looking forward to reading it!

  35. Picked it up yesterday and I’m halfway through. Great read and I disagree that there’s too many technical details. Some of us enjoy geeking out on the science.

  36. I bagged this while I was in bed with the ‘flu last Christmas. It became one of my favourite books, because of the hard-sci fi, and the protagonist’s smart-assery.

    Also, by recommending it, I met an awesome girl.

    So, um. You rock, Andy!

  37. Just put this on my hold list at the library — where I will clearly have to wait a while, as there are over 100 people in line ahead of me, and merely 15 copies. I don’t read much super hard sf anymore, but I can’t resist a smart-ass Robinson Crusoe in Space.

  38. Mr Weir, enjoyed the audible version of your book but found the ending unsatisfying. My version ends with Mark entering the MAV… What happened to the Hermes crew? What were
    the ominous sounding problems with the restructuring the MAV alluded to back on Earth?
    It was as if my audible version was missing further chapters.

  39. I recently finished reading this exceptional novel – it was impossible to put down. However, I do have a question that I wish someone could answer for me. The crew of the Mars mission was forced to leave the planet and abandon Mark Watney because a violent wind storm threatened to topple the MAV, thus stranding them all on Mars. My question is, with the atmosphere of Mars being only one percent the density of Earth’s atmosphere (almost a vacuum), how could the wind – no matter how fast it was blowing – have posed any threat to the stability of the MAV? It seems as if the Martian atmosphere lacks the mass (if I’m using the term correctly) to topple something so substantial?

  40. I just read “The Martian” and found it a great read. I could idolize Mark’s character. So believable and loved the humor that released the tense situation.
    I read a book every 2 days which includes many great authors, so I feel qualified to tell you “Pickle” “Great first novel” Now get this sold for a movie, and onto your next book!
    Carol (70 year young Grandma from Canada)

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