The northwest corner of his office in Northern California, Andy Weir likes to joke, is the best spot for “cowering and crying,” but the southwest corner gets the better light. So what does Weir have to cry about? He’s a huge success: His novel, “The Martian,” self-released in 2011, scored a publishing deal and a movie option in the same week and went on to become a blockbuster bestseller and a hit movie starring Matt Damon. A modified version of the book is used to help teach science in classrooms around the country — also ensuring a new generation of readers. His short story “The Egg” — a viral hit online — became the basis of Logic’s rap-concept album “Everybody,” which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard last spring. And Weir’s fanfic story “Lacero,” a prequel to fellow novelist Ernest Cline’s bestselling “Ready Player One” — is now included as canon in a sold-out limited edition of the book, just as anticipation is ramping up for the Steven Spielberg film adaptation coming next year.
Yet Weir, who wears a jaunty cap and a cheery grin during most of his public appearances, says he is plagued by crippling self-doubt. What if he’s a one-hit wonder, he wonders? What if his just-released follow-up novel, “Artemis,” fails to measure up? Has his success been a fluke? Weir is clearly suffering imposter syndrome anxiety.
While in New Mexico this year to shoot a television pilot for a proposed NASA series, Weir sought advice from fellow writer and cap-aficionado George R.R. Martin. “I was like, ‘Now is when everybody is going to find out that I actually suck. That I don’t know what the hell I’m doing,’ ” Weir said. “And George was like, ‘Yeah, that feeling never ends. You’ll still feel that way when you’re writing your 28th book.’ ”
Weir thinks of his new novel, “Artemis,” as his fourth book. His first attempt at a novel was written when he was studying computer science at UC San Diego “in the early 1990s” and it’s so bad, he says, he doesn’t want anyone to read it — his mother guards the only surviving copy. He attempted his second, a space opera called “Theft of Pride,” during a break in employment as a computer programmer. When that failed to get a publisher, he resumed his day job but continued to write for fun. Weir had no reason to believe anyone would buy his third book, so he serialized it for free online, inviting readers to weigh in with any science corrections. That, of course, was “The Martian.” The result was an exhaustively researched story that demonstrates what it would be like to be stranded on Mars, told in a charmingly sarcastic voice. The narrator, Mark Watney, is essentially Weir himself, he said, “but only the good parts.”
With “Artemis,” Weir offers another scientifically detailed story, this time about what it would be like to live on the Moon, and the setting is the real draw. Sixty years from now, the commercial space industry has made visits to the moon financially possible for the upper and middle class. Some people visit to experience lunar gravity (especially older couples seeking to rejuvenate their sex lives), some come to take advantage of the unregulated financial transactions and general lawlessness found on the final frontier. This lunar metropolis, called Artemis, population 2,000, is modeled in part after a Caribbean resort island — opulent hotels for the tourists and shabbier accommodations for the workers. Our narrator, Jazz Bashara, is one of these lunar locals, who emigrated to the moon from Saudi Arabia at age 6. She lives in a capsule apartment that she calls a coffin. For food, she eats flavored algae called Gunk. And she shares a closed shower system that reuses the same 20 liters over and over. (“Important note: Do not pee in a graywater-reuse shower,” she warns.)
Intensely frustrated by her poverty, Jazz escalates from smuggling contraband (anything that can ignite is verboten, because of the compressed oxygen tanks) to trying to pull off the perfect crime in a vacuum. (Fun fact — because there is no weather on the moon, lunar dust is actually barbed rocks, which will tear up your lungs. Don’t breathe it!)
Weir is clearly delighted with the caper aspect of the book — “I never pulled off a heist or industrial espionage before! I never chloroformed an entire town!” — and so is Hollywood. A feature film adaptation, to be directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, is in the works. But still, Weir is worried whether readers will take to his narrator, whose sensibilities are modeled after his own.
Jazz is “like the real me,” Weir said. “Immature, bad decision-making, doesn’t always make the smart move. She’s more like me in my 20s, and maybe still a little bit now. I just made bad decisions. I couldn’t keep a job because I wouldn’t show up on time. I had relationships that didn’t go well. You know how it is.” Rosario Dawson voices Jazz in the Audible version.
Jazz’s attitudes about money are also Weir’s — he grew up “fairly poor” and then went on to become “really, really poor” in his 20s. He didn’t complete his degree at UC San Diego, he says, because he “ran out of money.”
Weir’s biggest concern about Jazz, however, was about making sure her sound persuasively female, so he circulated the manuscript to a select group of actual females and asked for feedback. “All my women friends would tell me, ‘Oh, this isn’t really how a woman would say something,’ and I would change it,” he said. “I got a lot of advice on how Jazz would interact with her dad. Originally in the draft, she called him an ‘asshole,’ and then one of my friends said, “No. No Saudi girl would call her dad that. I don’t care how far removed she is from Saudi culture.’”
“Basically, I had to research women,” Weir said, laughing. “By comparison, orbital dynamics are easy!”
In addition to The Times, Vineyard writes for The New York Times, Elle, SyFy Wire and other publications. She was most recently a senior editor at New York Magazine.