Author Andy Weir, known for his huge breakout hit The Martian, is back again with another brilliant science fiction story called Project Hail Mary. In this story, the world is faced with collapse and has one chance to save itself in the form of a manned scientific mission. It has interstellar travel, mystery, friendship, and excitement. Andy was kind enough to answer some questions for Grimdark Magazine about his reading life, writing, sudden fame, and mental health.
GdM: As a science-fiction nerd and heavy reader, there are books out there that affected me profoundly and changed how I viewed the world. I know that you have a deep love of science fiction going back to being a kid. What are some books that have affected you deeply and why?
I loved the “Caves of Steel” series by Asimov. They showed me that Sci-Fi can be more than just action or adventure stories. It can also be a mystery or, frankly, anything you want. Also, “Red Planet” by Heinlein really hit me in my sense of wonder when I read it as a kid. And, unrelated to Sci-Fi, I loved Terry Pratchett’s books because I learned the value of humor in narration from him.
GdM: When did you start to build a love of space exploration?
Pretty much from birth. I don’t ever remember a time when I wasn’t interested in space.
GdM: You were a software engineer at Blizzard in the 1990s. I know that software engineers have a very systematic way of breaking down problems into small, manageable parts and solving those small parts. Is that how you approach writing, breaking down each idea into small pieces? Or do you sit down and let the story flow out from beginning to end?
I generally have the major beats of the story worked out in advance. I know the big plot twists and the ending. But other than that, I let the writing flow naturally. And sometimes that makes me come up with better twists.
GdM: Firstly, let’s talk about The Martian, a huge hit and a beloved member of the science fiction canon. The Martian started as a serialized novel on your website where you had “3000 daily fact-checkers.” What was the daily fact check like versus writing Artemis, or your newest novel, Project Hail Mary?
It was much harder to get all the science right in Artemis and Project Hail Mary for precisely that reason. I put more time and care into research because I knew if I got something wrong, no one would be able to tell me until the book was already in print.
It’s really amazing. The whole experience seemed surreal to me. Like a dream.
GdM: Speaking of different mediums, you have worked in short stories, game design, novels, graphic novels, and webcomics. Is the creative process different for all these different mediums? Or do you approach things similarly?
Generally the same thing across all media. A cool idea followed by hours of work.
GdM: You interviewed with Adam Savage and Astronaut Chris Hadfield, worked with Wil Wheaton, and have been to NASA. You are living the nerd dream right there. What are some other things that you would be interested in doing in the future that is in the same vein?
I love meeting scientists and seeing their labs. Going to NASA was the best experience of my life. I’m not sure what I could ask for that would top it.
GdM: Let’s talk about The Egg. It was quite the deep philosophical dive, especially after I watched the Kurzgesagt video on it. Ovoism sounds like a terrible religion. What do you think about the attention it has gotten, and how did writing it come about?
It was just a story I banged out in 40 minutes one evening. I did a single edit pass then posted it to my site. I didn’t expect it to be significant. It was just one of many short stories I wrote in that period. Then it blew up and got really popular. I’m glad it did.
But I do get the occasional email from someone who believes The Egg is actually true. I always make sure to tell them I don’t think it’s true. It’s just a story I made up. I also don’t believe there’s a guy stranded on Mars. These are just stories.
GdM: You have been a big proponent of mental health and have spoken very candidly about anxiety. As someone who suffers from anxiety disorder also, thank you for trying to normalize it. How do you work with deadlines, expectations, and the creative process while still maintaining a healthy mental state? I know there must have been a lot of pressure on you as an author after the success of The Martian.
Yeah it was rough. And the response to Artemis wasn’t what I’d hoped. Though, following-up The Martian, it was going to be difficult no matter what. But I got through. The anxiety was really difficult for me, but it doesn’t actually interfere with me getting work done. It just makes my idle time less fun.
GdM: How has 2020 affected you as a writer?
I thought that, with the pandemic and all, I would get a bunch of writing done. I figured being stuck in the house with literally nowhere to go would help me stay focused. But the opposite was true. I got very little writing done. I couldn’t motivate. I talked to other writers about it and they all had the same problem.
I have come to realize that exterior stimuli are critical for my process. I didn’t know it until now, but my ideas come from my interactions while out in the world, not from brainstorming in my office.
GdM: Can you tell me a bit about your newest story, Project Hail Mary?
Project Hail Mary is about a man who wakes up aboard a spaceship with two dead crewmates. He has no idea who he is or why he’s there. As his memory comes back in bits and pieces, he realizes he’s on a last-ditch mission to save all of humanity from an extinction-level event. No pressure.
GdM: In an interview I watched with Joe Scott, you and he discussed some of the main issues of Mars travel: Radiation, long-term weightlessness on the human body, and people crammed in tin cans for long periods. You addressed these three ideas very thoroughly in Project Hail Mary; at the time of the interview at the end of 2019, had you started writing Project Hail Mary yet?
Yes, in fact I finished the first draft of PHM in January of 2020.
GdM: There is inherent goodness in your protagonists. All of the main protagonists are not perfect, they have flaws, but fundamentally, they have good souls. I found this especially true in your newest book, Project Hail Mary. Do you gravitate towards this kind of character in general in both reading and writing?
I think so, yeah. I tend to write feel-good novels. Because that’s the kind of story I like to read. Also, I’m an optimist in general about humanity. I think we do a good job making life better for everyone and we can really pull together when we have a big problem.
GdM: In an interview I watched that you did years ago, you spoke briefly about a story you wrote called Zhek, which has been described as “a more traditional sci-fi novel with aliens, telepathy, faster-than-light travel, etc.” At the time of the interview, you had said that Zhek got scraped and cannibalized. Did parts of Zhek end up in Project Hail Mary?
Yes! Zhek had an alien technology called “blackmatter” that would absorb all electromagnetic waves and turn them into mass. Then it could turn that mass back into light for propulsion. I took that concept and made it into a lifeform instead of a technology. That’s where I came up with Astrophage – a core plot element in Project Hail Mary.
Also, there was a woman in Zhek who had a tremendous amount of secret authority. She could pretty much order anyone to do anything and they had to do it. I took that character and made her into Stratt for PHM.
There was more research for PHM than for either of my previous books. It was a ton of different sciences – physics, relativity, quantum mechanics, relativity, biology, chemistry, materials science, you name it. But I enjoy the research part of a project so it was all fun for me.
I touched on how I came up with Astrophage in the previous question, but to give more information: I wanted a spacecraft fuel that used mass-conversion to make light for propulsion. I originally had that concept of blackmatter from Zhek. I realized that blackmatter was a substance that takes energy to make more of itself. So it was pretty much like life.
So I decided “why not make it actually life? Then I don’t have to have aliens out there who invented it. It just evolved.” So that’s what I did.
GdM: One of the fantastic points you mention in Project Hail Mary was to utilize old and tested technologies as much as possible. I loved this idea, but it is not a common idea in science fiction. Can you tell me a bit about why this idea of utilizing existing technologies was so crucial in the story?
Earth is in serious danger. They don’t have time to spend decades working on the Hail Mary. They need to get it built and launched ASAP. The problem is the mission is one of pure science with a single goal: Find out why Tau Ceti isn’t affected by Astrophage. So the most important part of the ship is the lab. That equipment absolutely has to work perfectly. They don’t have time to invent and test zero-g capable versions of all that equipment. They used off-the-shelf, well-tested equipment. To do that, though, they had to make the Hail Mary have a centrifuge mode so there would be artificial gravity for the equipment.
Thanks! No, she’s not based on any real person. The kernel of her character came from a character in Zhek. But it was all made up by me out of whole cloth. She’s sort of a “I want to be her” character. Wouldn’t it be nice to have unlimited authority and be able to cut through all red tape and procedures?
GdM: And finally, How did you come up with Rocky? He might be one of my favorite characters I have read in a science fiction story.
Aww, thanks. I did want to make him likeable. He’s a fundamentally good person. And the story, at its core, is about friendship. So yeah, I wanted people to like him. But I was surprised at how overwhelmingly people loved him! So much love for the little guy. It’s great!
Check out Our Review of Project Hail Mary
Read Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir