Heroes Are Whoever's Left When Everyone Else Runs Away

I interviewed Andy Weir about writing Project Hail Mary.

Project Hail Mary follows an unlikely astronaut on a desperate mission to save the solar system from a spacefaring bacteria that eats sunlight. It’s an immensely entertaining adventure that will teach you more real science than you learned in high school. Never has a novel so deserved the moniker science fiction.

A software engineer turned novelist who's been obsessed with space since childhood, Andy is the author of Artemis, Chesire Crossing, and The Martian, which Ridley Scott adapted into a blockbuster film starring Matt Damon.

In the following conversation, we discuss Andy’s creative process and the story behind Project Hail Mary.

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What is Project Hail Mary’s origin story? How did it grow from the first glimmer of an idea into the book I’m holding in my hands right now?

It was actually a collection of unrelated story ideas I had been brewing. I was working on an idea where a guy wakes up aboard a spaceship with amnesia, another idea about a maximum efficiency rocket fuel, an idea where a single person has more authority than any human being has ever had in history, and a few other concepts I don't want to say because it would spoil the book. But basically, I was working each one as a potential book and none of them were enough meat to be a story. But when I put them all together, it worked out great!

What does it mean to become a hero? What did you discover about living your own life by inventing the journey at the heart of this novel?

I think the best quote about heroism is, "Heroes are whoever's left when everyone else runs away." Sometimes it's just what you have to do because the alternative is unthinkable.

So much of Project Hail Mary is about solving problems, many of which appear intractable. How do you approach solving problems, and what did you learn from the protagonists about problem-solving?

I like to break them up into small, bite-sized pieces. Fix all these little problems and you'll be able to fix the big problem.

In researching Project Hail Mary, what surprised you most about advances in space technologies? What do the headlines miss? What key implications are under-appreciated?

There's been a lot of advances in zero-g 3D printing. They haven't been talked about much in the news, but it's an exciting field of study. Imagine putting all the mass for a space station up as a liquid slurry—taking the minimum possible volume, then having a 3D printer in space slowly make your station out of it. No more having to fit chunks into a rocket. Just send more 3D juice.

What are the most interesting aspects of the relationship between science and engineering? Why are they—and the feedback loop between them—so important?

Well, science is speculative and engineering is hands-on. You need both to accomplish anything.

What did choosing to make the protagonist a science teacher teach you about science education? How can science education and communication be improved?

Well I didn't go at it with the idea of focusing on teachers. I just wanted some explanation for his personality and that seemed to suit well.

What does science fiction mean to you? What role does it play in the culture?

To me, sci-fi is a setting, not a genre. It's more like saying "Chicago" than saying "Comedy.” Because you can have a sci-fi comedy. Or a sci-fi drama. Or sci-fi action. Romance. You name it. It's a background for your story.

As for culture—I don't think much along those lines. I just write to entertain. I don't delude myself into thinking I'm doing any great service for culture.

What did writing Project Hail Mary teach you about craft? What creative challenges did you grapple with that were different than your previous books?

My biggest challenge was figuring out how to exposition all the stuff that lead to the ship being built and launched. The flashback approach worked well.

How has your relationship with your readers evolved since The Martian?

I don't think it's changed much. I still answer all fan mail and reply to all Facebook DMs.

What books have changed your life? What should fans of Project Hail Mary read next?

I don't know if a book has ever changed my life. Though if you like hard science fiction, I recommend The Expanse series. Book one is Leviathan Wakes.

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Complement with Cory Doctorow on writing Attack Surface, Daniel Suarez on writing Change Agent, and five lessons I learned writing Veil.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

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