Posted in Recovered

Andy Weir and the Martian

Get out your hex tables all you ASCii nerds.  Zak Wilson (the next Matt Damon?) as Mark Watney and Neil Sheibelhut shooting/editing the video; here is my thank you to Andy Weir for his time and effort with me and my blog, its a bit short but the full length video will be heading up on YouTube soon, enjoy!

Futuristic Sci-Fi adventure fans, meet Mark Watney.  This man was chosen to go to Mars for his skills as a botanist, his resourcefulness as an engineer, and, perhaps most importantly, for his positive effect on the morale of the Ares 3 crew.  He is a funny guy, and I can say I just about died laughing when reading about his plan to meet his returning spaceship by poking a hole in his space suit glove and using the escaping pressure to fly around like Iron Man.

He’s not real.  Well I should say he’s no more real than Ford Prefect, Harry Dresden, or Captain Kirk (though soon an actor will transfer him from black and white e-ink to HD color and Dolby sound just like the other characters mentioned).

He is an idea of what a brave, resilient, and resourceful nerd can do when pushed to the limits in a hostile environment far away from home.  Given my current situation, perhaps I relate to him a bit more now than I did with my feet up at the marina selling a bottle of Dr. Pepper or bag of sunflower seeds every few hours. I read The Martian and felt for the first time that someone had found a reasonable and exciting story that involved Mars.  I love the battles of Barsoom and the arch angel Michael grok-ing the human race as much as any Sci-fi addict but it was the juxtaposition of Sci-fi and realism led me to get in contact with Mr. Weir and see what he was like.

When I say “get in contact with Mr. Weir” I don’t mean I just looked up my good buddy, Andy, on Google and sent him a chat message. In fact, I got in touch with a very kind woman named Sarah at the publishing company who, to the best of my knowledge, didn’t laugh once at the excited preteen-girl-at-a-Justin-Beiber-concert tone of my letter assuring her that I wanted to talk to Mr. Weir for my blog only to “showcase how literature and science can overlap and create some great dialogue”.  I sent the email.   I told my crewmates.  We had a very serious group discussion about whether I had informed the HI-SEAS selection committee of my apparent problem stalking authors.  I blushed a lot and decided that any rejection I got couldn’t possibly come close to the good-humored razzing I’d just received.  With that I put it out of my mind.  There’s always plenty to do on sMars and during that particular week Martha and I were doing maintenance on the composting toilets which effectively erased all thoughts not related to how well we hide how gross we are and the magical curative properties of hot water and soap.  So imagine my surprise when I come back to my desk some days later to find this:

Hi Sophie- I’ve cc Andy Weir here who would be happy to speak with you.


Ohhh Sarah, Sarah of few words, Sarah the bearer of awesome opportunity, my own personal Iris, using the spectrum of electronic communication to connect humble lil me with Watney’s Creator.  This might be the most exciting one line email I’ve ever received.

First off, I totally showed all the crew and was rewarded with unacceptably lackluster response from all except Zak who, appropriately, joined me in holding hands while jumping around in circles making high pitched squeals of joy and excitement.  It was kind of a blur but I’m pretty sure that’s what happened.  I mean it was either that or I excitedly squealed semi-coherently about having Andy Weir’s email address and he, equally excitedly, wheeled his chair to my work station to verify the object of my insanity/make sure I wasn’t having a seizure.  I could ask him all those questions I had while reading the book, all those wonderful and insightful questions, those questions that would bring about new understanding and deeper appreciation, those questions… the ones I swear I had… hell’s bells, I had a direct line to Andy Weir and my brain was totally devoid of rational thought.

What follows is a compilation of the more coherent parts of my email conversation with Andy Weir.  Working within the email medium was difficult for carrying on a real conversation especially when you factor in a delay of about 40 minutes between conversations.  I was surprised to find that he had at least as many questions for me as I had for him, the crew and I found it entertaining that he intuitively knew to send attachments to his orbital trajectories of Hermes available online, rather than links to webpages, a challenge we still have with some of our first tier support people.

Sophie Milam (SM): I am so excited to talk with you, you’ve made my sol! I have so many things I’d like to ask you but I think I’ll start off with the classic, would you go to Mars if you had the opportunity?

Andy Weir (ATW):  It may be a surprising answer, but I would not go to Mars. I’m just not brave enough to handle the anxiety and stress such a mission would be. I know my limitations. I write about brave people, but I’m not one of them.

SM: Our crew recently talked about some gender/diversity issues with an Engineering Ethics class from Michigan and one of the things that we’ve been able to come up with is that gender and cultural identity are incredibly unimportant to us and we tend to focus on our individual personalities and open mindedness more than anything. When you were writing The Martian, how did you balance the crew? Did you try to model your characters with a basis in gender or cultural stereotypes or did you only concern yourself with individual traits?

ATW:  I didn’t set out to deliberately balance the crew. For the most part, I just wanted them each to be unique enough for the reader to tell them apart without prompting. It’s a real problem in written fiction. You don’t have the face on-screen or voice being heard to remind the audience who’s who. They need to know it immediately from the name.
So there are no two people on Hermes who are the same demographic. There’s one white American guy (Beck), one Hispanic guy (Martinez), and one German guy (Vogel). There are two women of undefined ethnicity (presumably white) but one of them is the Commander, so you won’t get them confused either. Especially since they all call her “Commander”.
So it wasn’t any deliberate attempt at diversity. It was really just a shortcut to making sure the reader knew who was who. You’ll find I pulled the same trick with the NASA characters: Teddy (white guy who is in charge), Mitch (white guy who isn’t in charge), Venkat (Indian), Annie (white woman), Mindy Park (Korean woman), Rich Purnell (African American).

SM:  Why did you make the commander a woman?

ATW:  I don’t remember. I just imagined a commander and it was a woman. I can’t really explain why my brain came up with her as a woman anymore than I can explain why Mark was a man. It’s just kind of what I came up with. Please tell me all about your experiment! I’m very curious. Do you have simulated
equipment? Do they stage failures you have to repair, etc.?

SM:  I like your reasoning for the commander.  When I imagined the commander for our mission I also envisioned a woman and lo and behold the selection committee agreed.  We have a simulated psychologist program that walks us through some different approaches to conflict resolution, teaches us how to control our breathing and heart rate during stressful times but that’s about it for the simulated technology.

We haven’t yet had to stage any failures because we have been doing a good job of having real problems that need real fixes. I think that this is what I find the most similar to your book. Everything seems like it’s going well and then, for seemingly no reason, things just stop working.  Our restricted internet will block mission objective survey sites on certain computers but not others.  Our hydrogen fuel cells randomly kicked on in the beginning and ran us out of Hydrogen.  Our composting toilets required some pretty gross maintenance, and our EVA suits are a whole other topic.

ATW:  Do you find yourself bored a lot? Or are you constantly busy with habitat maintenance and other tasks?

SM:  I can honestly say I’ve never been bored once here.  There’s always so much going on mostly I feel bad for not getting more things done.  Its not all Hab maintenance, a good portion of it learning how to work within the power limits we have.  For example, on the days it is your turn to cook you have to do as much as possible while the sun is out.  So when I made Gumbo I started rehydrating things when I woke up in the morning, made the roux at noon, combined everything together before our workout and set it to simmer.  When you cook here you pretty much lose an entire day of productivity to do it.

ATW: For the resupply missions, do they set supplies out somewhere and you have to go recover them with an EVA?

SM: We have 2 types of resupplies, “bin-bots” where we leave out our waste and it is picked up by a “bot” who delivers any supplies we need into a “teleport area” in the Hab.  These are usually for our 2-month resupplies of food and personal effects, but they also take out the garbage.  We can have urgent requests for waste removal if something really needs to go…like when we cleaned out the composting toilets this week and it warranted an emergency waste removal the next day.  We also have “crash lander” resupplies that are dropped near the Hab and we do an EVA to go out and retrieve whatever has been left for us.  We got our new space suit this way.  Do you remember why you got into science/space/technology?

ATW:  I don’t know why I got into science. I’ve never *not* been into it. Probably because my dad is a geek and he indoctrinated me from childhood.

SM:  What’s the most dangerous/stupid thing you’ve ever done?

ATW:  Hmm. Most dangerous/stupid thing I ever did… My friend and I once got a pair of headset walkie-talkies. They were all right but the range was less than we’d like. They ran on two double-A batteries. So we soldered a 9V battery receptacle in place and powered one of the headsets with triple its designed voltage.
It worked great! The signal was much clearer and the range was far better. I had the headset on for about three minutes while we tested it. Less than a second after I took it off, while it was still in my hands, it exploded. Turns out overcharging a radio will cause a capacitor inside to boil. It was a good three feet from my head at the time, but the pop was so loud I had a ringing in my ears for several minutes. I strongly suspect that if it had been on my head at the time I would now be deaf in one ear.

SM:  Ohhhh man that radio story sounds just like something my brothers and I would’ve tried if we’d ever been allowed to have walkie talkies.  As it was, all our mishaps seem to revolve around bike ramps over the dead end guard rail at the bottom of the biggest hill in our neighborhood and homemade bows and arrows out of my mom’s favorite Lady Banksia bush.  My oldest brother and I still bear the scars of those days… ahhh the simple life. How much research did you have to do for the book?

ATW:  I did tons of research for the book. It took me about three years to write. I also wrote orbital trajectory calculation software to work out the various courses Hermes had during the book.

SM:  Our orbital science guy, Allen, loved the trajectories you sent, I think I’ve got him totally hooked to read the book now once we find some free time.

ATW:  I poked around the site and saw the video of you and your crewmates. I’m sorry you miss your dog and hedgehog. I’m an avid animal lover and have two cats of my own. I miss them whenever I travel. When do you “return to Earth”?

SM:  We get out of the dome on June 12 and will then have 2 days of debriefing.  So we are free and clear on June 15 which happens to be my birthday.  Actually four of us have birthdays in the ten days after we get out of the dome so we like to joke that we’ll get the whole world back as a birthday present.  Thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation with me, it was so much fun getting to talk to you.  I just have one more question for you, any chance Zak and I can get tickets to The Martian premier?  Like all good books turned movie I am both ridiculously excited and nervous to see how it comes out.

ATW:  I only get one guest for the premier, so I don’t have any extra tickets to give out. Sorry.

Unfortunately next November won’t see Zak or I accompanying Andy Weir down the red carpet, maybe Jeff Daniels needs a date… hell at this point I’ll settle for Matt Damon.

Perhaps this dialogue didn’t blow through the barriers between literature and science to bring peace and verb tense consistency to engineers everywhere but you know what, I think at the very least it showed us that there doesn’t have to be this huge stereotype about engineers and writing.

I have degrees in Astronomy, Physics, and, Engineering and writing a novel absolutely terrifies me.  Will people like it?  Will it succeed?  Will I be able to handle the workload and the stress?  Will my characters be relatable? Not to mention my absolutely horrendous problems with grammar that no version of spellcheck has been able to handle, you can thank my mom for editing this draft.

Also, talk about putting your life on hold, you really have to commit.  I definitely couldn’t bang out a book in the time I have left to me here in the dome even if I were to be exempt from all the chores and responsibilities so I am in awe of Mr. Weir’s scant 3 years to put together a book like The Martian.

Mr. Weir says he only writes about brave people and that he isn’t one.  I disagree.  To tackle a project like The Martian, to make science fun, entertaining and yet still accurate is a big endeavor.  Anyone who attempts it definitely qualifies as brave in my book.  Space travel often seems like something someone else is doing that doesn’t really impact you but Andy Weir opens up this seeming cold and futuristic idea as something everyone can relate to.

Who hasn’t felt a bit isolated?  Can any of you say that you’ve never been forced into a situation you hadn’t planned on?  Have you never felt proud and intelligent and creative for finding a way to bring yourself out of a bad situation?  Everyone has problems whether they’re trapped on Mars growing potatoes from human compost or trapped in a more figuratively crappy though equally isolated cubicle.

What this book provides, besides hours of entertainment, is insight on how a person can use their intelligence and inventiveness to not only figure out their problems but to find out how to ask for and accept help, and it’s about showing how so many people are willing to help.

This book is not just the story of a clever man who got left on Mars and has to find his way home, it’s also about one man having a problem and the whole world coming together to try and help him.  It reminds me that there are people out there who still believe that we’re all looking out for each other.  It gives me hope that people will not just stand by while someone is in need.  It gives me a wonderful, courageous and goofy role model in my professional life and an excellent vision of humanity.

So turn off the boob-tube and snuggle down for a good read, I guarantee that even if you don’t return with Hermes thinking better of the human race and our future as a space-faring people you will laugh, commiserate, and rejoice as Mr. Weir’s Martian tries to get home.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for believing.

Your sMartian,

Sophie “Two Step” Milam


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