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Why Andy Weir and Annalee Newitz Still Have Hope for the Future

Two Bay Area sci-fi hotshots on why they haven't given up yet.

Annalee Newitz and Andy Weir 

 

Read more from the Fall Arts Preview from our September 2017 issue here.

Sure, things may look bleak right now. But that’s just because we haven’t gotten to the lunar vacations and the robot sex yet. At least so say two of the Bay Area’s sharpest science writers, both with new forward-looking novels set to drop this fall. Andy Weir, the Mountain View computer programmer turned bestselling author of The Martian, returns with Artemis (Nov. 14, Crown), the story of a girl’s fight to save the lunar colony she calls home from shadowy outside interests. (20th Century Fox has already acquired the movie rights.) And Annalee Newitz, former editor-in-chief of sci-fi, fantasy, and tech blog io9, makes her fiction debut with Autonomous (Sept. 19, Tor Books), about a bioengineering-patent-hacking pirate being pursued by AI robot agents. We caught up with both to chat about the maybe-not-so-impending apocalypse and putting the science back in sci-fi.

San Francisco: I just read “The Uninhabitable Earth” in New York magazine, which painted a terribly harrowing picture of the near future. What’s it like writing sci-fi with the specter of our own annihilation haunting us?
Annalee Newitz: That article is actually a great example of how easy it is to reach for apocalyptic thinking instead of taking a more nuanced, scientific point of view. It’s very seductive to think our generation is the last generation—that we’re the ones to face the big boss. But that’s a simple story, and you don’t have to struggle with any of the annoying near-term problems of what to do about things like toxic waste going into black communities.

Andy Weir: I tend to be extremely optimistic about the future. If you ask someone if they’d rather live today or 100 years ago or 200 years ago, they’ll pick today. And if you asked someone in the year 2117 the same thing, they’d be like, “I’ll stay in 2117.”

How vital is it for you to maintain complete scientific plausibility in a novel, which is entirely a work of the imagination?
AW: For me, [scientific accuracy] is very important because I’m a nerd and I care about it. But how important is it in fiction? Actually, not very. That’s the avenue by which I make plausible stories, but it’s not the only avenue. It’s like Doctor Who, one of my favorite shows ever. There’s like zero plausible science, just vague technobabble and magic—

AN: You’re saying there’s not a sonic screwdriver in my future?

AW: Exactly. That’s just my particular approach. But there’s no such thing as cheating. If people buy into it—if they buy into your suspension of disbelief—then you’re good.

AN: For me, I’m a science journalist, so everything I’ve written up until now has been, hopefully, factual. So when I came to science fiction, the first thing I did—after I started thinking about robot sex—was to think about things like, How would robots communicate? What would network security look like if your consciousness was on the network? How would robots talk to each other? There’s lots in there I made up, but I wanted it to be the case that someone who knew what they were talking about wouldn’t be smacking their face. Part of the nerdy fun of writing is making it full of wonder, but also making it scientifically accurate.

AW: If you use real physics as your world setting, you don’t have to make up new stuff.

AN: I’m like, if I’m already using all this speculation, then I at least want my physical world to not be a Terry Pratchett world.

AW: Hey, I love Terry Pratchett!

AN: I’m just saying, you pick your speculation.

What was the hardest thing for you to bone up on?
AN: For me, it was the neuroscience and theories of addiction. One of the main plots in my book is about a drug that gets people addicted to work. Some people who read the book got super excited about the robot consciousness, like, “Wow, that’s so new!” But that stuff felt really familiar to me. It’s the human brain that was more the undiscovered thing.

AW: For me, it was welding. It comes into play in Artemis, and I knew exactly zero about welding. At least in The Martian, I had chemists sending me emails as I posted chapters online, telling me I had to go fix something. But this time, having a contract with Random House, I couldn’t just post the chapters online. I’ve just got to hope I got it right.

AN: I showed my manuscript to an expert in addiction, and I’d been worrying that I’d totally fucked up the addiction stuff, but she was more concerned with how I misrepresented the future of drug commercials. So I did end up changing some things in the book, just not what I expected to change.

AW: Sometimes the important thing with feedback is to know what to ignore.

AN: For sure, but actually, it made the commercials so much more evil, so I was like, “Yeah, that’s awesome!”

So much sci-fi takes place in a dystopian future. What would a story look like where we’d figured everything out?
AW: Well, dystopia’s a very easy setting to write in. You need a conflict. A good example of that—of a utopian future but still finding a conflict to write about—is Iain M. Banks.

AN: I love Iain M. Banks—he’s one of the giant influences on me. So let’s say things improve over time. What will happen is there’ll be new conflicts. New political conflicts, new social conflicts. We’ll invent 15 more genders to argue about. There’s always going to be something. And that’s what’s fun about science fiction. You’re trying to imagine, What’s the next conflict? If we’ve solved today’s near-term problems, what are the long-term ones?

 

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco 

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