Left behind on Mars

Ridley Scott (second from left) directs The Martian written by Andy Weir (left, behind Scott), which stars Matt Damon (second from right), Sean Bean (centre) and Kate Mara (right).
Ridley Scott (second from left) directs The Martian written by Andy Weir (left, behind Scott), which stars Matt Damon (second from right), Sean Bean (centre) and Kate Mara (right).PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Ridley Scott (second from left) directs The Martian written by Andy Weir (left, behind Scott), which stars Matt Damon (second from right), Sean Bean (centre) and Kate Mara (right).
The Martian by Andy Weir.PHOTO: DEL REY

Andy Weir's best-selling nerd thriller The Martian, about an astronaut left in outer space, is made into a movie starring Matt Damon

NEW YORK • In 2011, Andy Weir started writing a book about an astronaut stranded on Mars. He had not had any success with publishers in the past, so he started posting chapters on his website.

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 full of stars.

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 such as Neal Stephenson, puts the nerd (male and female) in the centre of the action.

The intellectual swashbuckler is the hero, not the plucky, comic- relief sidekick.

Little wonder, then, that The Martian novel and now the movie (due out in the United States on Oct 2) come with the imprimatur of all that is nerdly.

The Martian is closer to classically optimistic science fiction than the dystopian works that have crowded the genre of late. Its heart, humour and rousing story of perseverance and global collaboration promise to broaden the film's appeal well beyond nerds.

When 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 astrophysicist and nerd icon Neil deGrasse Tyson - it would not 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 have not taught themselves how to use a slide rule for the archaic challenge.

In an interview from his home in Northern California, Weir, a former software engineer, said he wrote his book with one 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 maths, 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 neighbourhood. The soil, he determined, would need hundreds of litres 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.

Weir, 43, said 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.

After 20th Century Fox optioned the film, director Drew Goddard (The Cabin In The Woods, 2012) adapted the book but had to drop out because of conflicts with other productions. Director Ridley Scott, who transformed science-fiction cinema with Blade Runner (1982) and Alien (1979), stepped in. And with him came Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels and Donald Glover, among others.

Damon said that, unlike Weir, he is not a space dork. But when he read the script, he found himself drawn to his character's steady competence amid chaos.

He recalled telling 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.

Weir admits 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" .

He said he is a fan of the dry and somewhat morbid sense of humour 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".

He is working on his next book, a sci-fi novel with a working title of Zhek.

Meanwhile, he is working to overcome a phobia: He is afraid of flying. But he is seeing a therapist, and has flown to Comic-Con in San Diego, and to the Johnson Space Center in Houston at the invitation of Nasa.

"I could not say no to that," he said.


•The Martian is available at Books Kinokuniya at $18.95. The movie opens in Singapore on Oct 1.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 20, 2015, with the headline 'Left behind on Mars'. Print Edition | Subscribe