Andy Weir, author of “The Martian,” which was recently adapted into a film starring Matt Damon, came to Palo Alto this past Tuesday to discuss his newest novel: “Artemis.” The book takes places on a moon colony in the near future, proposing a possible trajectory for humanity’s space travel.
Tuesday’s talk covered everything from the nutritional value of algae to Weir’s hobbies of mixology, woodworking and board games. A lot of focus was reserved for discussion of the more technical components of Weir’s book. It was clear that he placed a lot of value in things being as scientifically accurate as possible — he is not a fan, for example, of breaking the laws of physics just for some cool sequences. Weir acknowledged that science fiction necessitates some suspension of disbelief, but he does not hold that this suspension allows for the author to simply disregard any sense of internal logic and rules within their universe. The result are novels like “The Martian” — books that are at once grippingly suspenseful and packed full of minutiae of the character’s day to day.
When asked, Weir confirmed that he believed we are rapidly moving toward privatized space, predicting that outer-space travel will develop similarly to the way in which the airline industry grew. Weir’s later self-descriptor as a Pollyanna felt at odds with this opening sentiment. Linking the future of outer space with the claustrophobic experience of monopolized airlines seems less than optimistic. These odd contradictions in tone turned out to be a defining feature of the night.
Weir leaned into a very specific brand of “dork,” a word he continuously used to describe himself. He proudly referenced his past as a writer of fan fiction for “Doctor Who,” “Sherlock” and “Ready Player One.” Almost every anecdote subtly reminded the audience that Weir was a nerd, but like, a cool nerd. At one point, Weir went off on a lengthy tangent explaining the difference between book rights being optioned for a movie versus purchased. While this was not technically irrelevant (after all, it was prompted by the observation that the rights to “Artemis” had been optioned), it lacked substance.
As a whole, the night was made up of loosely connected tangents, some of which didn’t quite land. When the conversation turned to audience questions, Weir responded to an inquiry about a scene from “Artemis” by joking that his personal favorite sequence was the prolonged lesbian sex scene. The intent of this statement was unclear — science fiction as a genre certainly struggles with objectifying female characters and society in general tends to fetishize sex between women for male consumption — but if it was meant to be a satirical critique of these phenomena, it wasn’t successful.
Personable and self-deprecating, Weir had the audience feeling like co-conspirators in his jokes and references, even in the midst of these discomfiting phrases. He pointed out the homages to the first doctor in “Artemis” to see if anyone was clever enough to get the reference. He grew up on classic 1950s science fiction, such as Isaac Asimov, and he claimed that it is this era that most shaped his writing. In addition to the sci-fi classics, Weir noted that the film “Chinatown” was a huge inspiration for “Artemis” specifically. “They’re both stories about the ugly stuff that has to go on for a city to grow,” he said.
The city that Weir imagines in “Artemis” is claustrophobic; people live in one-cubic-meter spaces — or coffins, as they are wryly named by the citizens. But the conversation remained light throughout the night, with Weir continuously insisting that he is an optimist when it comes to the future. This insistence left little room for discussion of some of the darker components of the novel — for example, if you’re poor on Artemis, then you eat algae instead of imported food. So although Weir managed to cover many topics and get to many questions, the conversation never strayed from its casual, almost dismissive tone. Much like algae as a dietary staple, the talk achieved what it set out to do while lacking any memorable effects.