Tom Skalak is the Vice President for Research Emeritus at the University for Virginia and was formerly the founding Executive Director of the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, which funds biological research around the world. He is currently working on an eco-thriller novel and was recently a resident at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, CA.
Andy Weir is the author of the bestselling novel The Martian, which was later adapted into a film. His most recent novel Artemis focuses on a moon settlement 66 years in the future. He currently resides in Silicon Valley.
You both had long careers in tech and science before you turned to writing. How do you think your outsider perspectives have influenced your work?
Tom: You know, part of what I want to do in my book is sort of talk about how innovation really works, both in individuals and organizations, so in a way, I want people to fall in love with knowledge again, and really talk about the capacity for wonder and invention. I think that exists across human creativity, in writers and visual artists and media artists and in science and in technology. But when you have plots that are driven by science and technology sometimes written by people who haven’t been insiders in science and technology, then I think sometimes the real character of what it means to be at an edge of science and technology doesn’t come across clearly.
Andy: For me, it’s just the simple “write what you know.” This is all I know. I honestly don’t know how to write introspective character pieces or stuff like that. Mark Watney at the end of the book is exactly the same as he was at the beginning. He undergoes no growth. You don’t know anything about him by the end of it other than he’s smart and he didn’t want to die, which isn’t much information. So no one would accuse The Martian of being literature, but I don’t generally like reading literature. I like reading plot-driven stories. So I guess it’s just much simpler for me. I like the kind of book that I myself would enjoy. To me, that’s the golden rule of writing. Write something that you would enjoy reading. And this is what I enjoy reading: science stuff, or science fact, or science fact-tion.
When do you decide to blur the science?
Tom: I’m writing what I would call near-term science fiction. Everything’s highly plausible and, while I’m not going to put a patentable discovery into this, in some cases, they’re pretty darn close. Everything will be plausible and I just want to have the plausibility drive the pace of the thriller.
Andy: So for Artemis, I’m trying to be as predictive as possible, kind of like what Tom’s doing with his biology. I’m not trying create a brand new world, I’m just saying here’s what I think will happen. The main conceit of Artemis is that the price to low Earth orbit is driven down by competition in the commercial space industry. That’s it. And it gets driven down low enough that middle class people can afford to go into space, and so that creates a tourist economy in space, which creates an economic incentive to build resorts. If you can get out of earth’s gravity, it’s actually not that much harder to go to the Moon, and so that creates the economic reality that allows Artemis to exist. And that’s all based on one assumption. I said it takes place in 2084 so I’m giving us something like 70 years to drive the price of low Earth orbit down…The ZAFO, the zero attenuation fibre optic, the idea of carrying light around with literally zero loss, that is much more speculative technology. It’s like a superconductor for light. I don’t know anything about whether that could be possible.
Tom: It’s such an awesome idea.
Andy: I had the idea for an Artemis sequel where people are working on a ZAFO switch, and so the idea is you put a buttload of light into the ZAFO loop, and the light just goes round and round and its happy in there…You could store so much energy in it that you could have a coil of ZAFO going around the fuselage of a plane that would power the plan for an international flight.
Tom: I’ve actually got to tell you Andy, I’ve challenged my 17-year-old son at home to get into storing light…If someone could invent light storage, that would be the key to saving the planet for sure.
Andy: Even on a simpler note, if you had ZAFO, ignoring the storage, your solar farms no longer have to turn energy into some other form, they could literally just transport the sunlight. Your power lines could basically just be light.
Tom: Absolutely. Whether you call it storage or transport or whatever. Getting the photons where they need to be.
You guys are clearly very knowledgeable about science and technology, and I think one of the reasons your work is so successful, Andy, is your ability to explain these concepts to a more lay audience. So where do you draw the line on adding technical information in your work?
Andy: That is a very delicate balance. It’s one of the hardest things for me, because I need to remember that my readers aren’t as into this stuff as I am. Whereas I would be happy to read page after page of detailed scientific explanation, they don’t. And so I have to give them the minimum amount of information necessary for them to understand the plot without going overboard. And it’s hard, because I’m like, “I spent a lot of time working on this and working out all the details and solving problems that dont even come up in the book. You know, it took me a long time to write this, it should take you a long time to read it.” But you gotta resist that urge to brag to your audience. I tell myself when I’m writing a book, I tell myself, “Alright, I’m just gonna give them the information they need, but I’m totally gonna have an appendix at the end that gives all that other information.” And then I never write the appendix, but it consoles me.
Tom: Yeah for me, I just want them to have fun while they’re learning—using the thriller format but to do a little bit of teaching, or putting the science a little more out in the public underneath it…I want them to hear about it, but in a sense, it can’t be technical, they have to hear about it in a way that’s exciting and fun and delightful. You know, it’s gotta be part of the entertainment.
Andy, you are based in Silicon Valley. Has being near the center of tech at all affected your writing and how you’re approaching the science behind it?
Andy: Not so much. I actually started writing The Martian when I was living in Boston. I grew up in Silicon Valley and my career is software, so that’s where the jobs were, but I wouldn’t say that the tech industry itself informed my writing at all. If anything, in The Martian, I based the NASA people and the personality types there on people I knew while I was working for a national laboratory in my high schools days in Livermore—Sandia national laboratories… Silicon Valley, I find the culture here to be actually pretty annoying, maybe because I was immersed in it in the tech industry for so long—25 years—but, you know, I can’t watch the TV show Silicon Valley for the same reason World War II vets don’t like watching Saving Private Ryan. It’s like, yes, that is an extremely accurate depiction and I don’t like remembering those days.
Is there anything else you guys wanted to add?
Tom: Andy, here’s a question for you. What do you think of autonomous vehicles?
Andy: Oh I love them! I think they’re gonna be a tremendous force for good—for lack of a better term—in the world…I think eventually cars will be very similar to planes in a lot of ways in that, one, you’ll need a very special license to drive, and two, I think dying in a car crash will be as rare as dying in a plane crash.
Andy: I don’t think people understand the tumultuous effects that autonomous cars are going to have. So next up youve got about how many drunk driving deaths per year are just gonna not happen? And then also some ludicrous amount of area per city is dedicated to parking, something like 10-20% of the total area of a city is places for people to put their cars. I think once you have autonomous vehicles, you’re just going to have a car service. It’ll be weird to own a car. It’ll be just like you summon a car, kind of like an Uber or a Lyft except you won’t have a driver.
Tom: Yeah, I’ll tell you why I was asking and why I thought it could be interesting is because I’m thinking if I write some rocket control code, am I gonna ask NASA to hand over their launching pads to me? What about that trillion dollar public infrastructure called highways? Do you think Google will need to pay up? I’d like to have my trillion dollars back as a taxpayer.
Andy: Well wait, does Ford have to pay up for those trillion dollar highways? Does Chevy?
Tom: No, but you have the freedom then of using them.
Andy: Well the freedom element is I can tell my autonomous car to take me anywhere in the country and it uses those roads. If those roads aren’t there, then I can’t do that, right? It’s my tax dollars at work.
Tom: Yeah that’s good. That’s awesome
This article is part of a partnership between Content and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program that brought Djerassi artists from all over the world in contact with Silicon Valley’s creative culture. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Interview by Justin Sun
Illustration by Hailey Morey