Sunday, September 13, 2015
On A Lonely Planet Nerds Rejoice!
Andy Weir started writing a book about an astronaut stranded on Mars. He hadn’t had any success with publishers in the past, so he started posting chapters to his website. That was 2011.
People really liked it — so much so that Crown Publishing came calling. The book became a best seller. Now 20th Century Fox is bringing out the movie, starring Matt Damon and a cast so full of stars that it’s like the monolith at the end of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
And before you stop me to say that Keir Dullea doesn’t actually say, “My God, it’s full of stars!” in the movie, that it’s from Arthur C. Clarke’s novelization, I know.
Sorry. Writing about “The Martian” seems to be bringing out the geekiness in your humble correspondent. That’s because Mr. Weir, from online serial to book to screen, has brought a little-appreciated genre into the mainstream: the nerd thriller. This hypertechnical genre, deeply developed by novelists like Neal Stephenson, does something that classic thrillers do not: It puts the nerd (male and female) in the center of the action. The intellectual swashbuckler is the hero, not the plucky, comic-relief sidekick. Imagine that instead of Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg is the star of “Mission: Impossible.”
This is adventure for those of us who believe, deep in our hearts, that the heroes of “Star Trek” (the original series, naturally) are Spock and Scotty, the science officer and the engineer. They don’t know why Kirk gets the gals, but they know they will end up saving the day, over and over again. With clever solutions, not fisticuffs.
Little wonder, then, that the “Martian” novel and now the movie (due Oct. 2) come with the imprimatur of all that is nerdly. Randall Munroe, creator of XKCD, a funny, technically deep comic beloved of the tribe, devoted a strip to the phenomenon.
“The Martian” is closer to classically optimistic science fiction than the dystopian works that have crowded the genre of late. Its heart, humor and rousing story of perseverance and global collaboration promise to broaden the film’s appeal well beyond nerds. When the astronaut Mark Watney, left on Mars with nothing but his considerable storehouse of snarky one-liners and powerful brain to save him, says a more profane equivalent of, “I am going to have to science the heck out of this” — a line recently endorsed by the astrophysicist and nerd icon Neil deGrasse Tyson — it won’t just be the geeks cheering. The story, which braids Watney’s efforts to survive with the struggles of the world’s space agencies and his departed crewmates to bring him home, can have meaning even to those who haven’t taught themselves how to use a slide rule for the archaic challenge.
In an interview from his home in Northern California, Mr. Weir, a former software engineer, said he wrote his book with one overarching thought in mind: It should be as scientifically accurate as possible. How much energy would a rover need to cover the enormous distances that Watney must drive? How many potatoes would he have to grow to provide the calories he will need? As he did the math, he found that the answers he got created new problems for his astronaut to surmount. All in an environment that, in terms of survival, constitutes a very tough neighborhood. The soil, he determined, would need hundreds of liters of water to be sufficiently moist to grow crops. Water that Watney, with training in botany and mechanical engineering, would have to come up with somehow. (He ends up passing leftover hydrazine, the rocket fuel, over a catalyst, and, well, it’s complicated.)
Mr. Weir, 43, said that his feel for the sensibility of astronauts and exploration came from “a life of being a space dork” who read everything he could get his hands on about such topics. The fact that this dedication has paid off in such a big way, with a major motion picture on the way, Mr. Weir said, is “really awesome.”
After 20th Century Fox optioned the film, Drew Goddard, the director who built a fierce following with the horror comedy “The Cabin in the Woods,” took on the project and adapted the book but had to drop out because of conflicts with other productions. The director Ridley Scott, who transformed science fiction cinema with “Blade Runner” and “Alien,” stepped in. And with him came Matt Damon, as well as Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels and Donald Glover, among others.
Mr. Damon said that unlike Mr. Weir, he is not a space dork. But when he read the script — cold, he said, with no idea what it was about — he found himself drawn to his character’s steady competence amid chaos. But when Mr. Goddard left the project, Mr. Damon said, “I thought it was just going to go away.” Later, however, Ridley Scott called. “That just made my life very easy in terms of decision-making — it was a no-brainer.”
He recalled telling Mr. Scott, “we don’t need an Oscar-bait kind of scene of some guy wailing and pulling his hair out. I don’t want to see that, and I don’t want to do that.”
The enormity of his plight, the existential dread, will flow from the vast loneliness of the landscape, they agreed. With brief exceptions, that is how he plays the character.
Mr. Weir admits freely that his stranded astronaut has little angst or inner life. Watney simply pushes forward, putting crises into a mental lockbox and figuring out how to survive. “It could have been a deep psychological thing,” he said, but “that’s not the kind of book I like to read, and it’s not the kind of book I wanted to write.” James Bond, he notes, is not weepy; “I wanted it to be moreMacGyver on Mars.” The most visible emotional moment for Watney, at a time of great stress and seeming failure, was inserted at the request of an editor.
Mr. Weir said he is a fan of the dry and somewhat morbid sense of humor that many astronauts share; he cited the quip from the legendary John Young, who walked on the moon and also flew the space shuttle, about procedures that shuttle crews were trained to follow in case of one particularly serious launch mishap: He called them “keeping busy while you wait to die.”
A number of astronauts say that Mr. Weir got them right, from the joking interplay between team members to Watney’s aplomb. Garrett Reisman, who flew to space three times and now works at Elon Musk’s SpaceX, said that astronaut selection and training focus on what is known as being “operational,” a quality of staying focused and sorting quickly through priorities. “When all hell is breaking loose,” he said, “what do I have to do right now that will keep me alive?”
He noted: “That’s different from just being super smart. You can probably think of someone who’s a genius in a laboratory or as an engineer, but you would never lend your car to him.”
Chris Hadfield, an astronaut who retired from the Canadian Space Agency in 2013 and flew aboard the space shuttle and the International Space Station, met Mr. Weir recently and recalled gushing, “You pretty much nailed the personality type, and the level of capability and education, but also with an operational attitude.” In space, he added: “Your life is absolutely reliant on your own abilities. It’s not a public relations exercise. You spend most of your life preparing for required parts of your job that could kill you.”
The astronaut Scott Kelly, reached aboard the