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Author Andy Weir on new novel and why he believes COVID-19 will be the last pandemic

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Author Andy Weir's debut space adventure rocketed to the top of the best-seller lists and inspired the Oscar-nominated film, "The Martian." Now the author is back with "Project Hail Mary," about a lone astronaut's last-ditch effort to save humanity from a mortal threat. "CBS This Morning: Saturday" co-host Jeff Glor catches up with Weir.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

JEFF GLOR: This morning, a return visit from Andy Weir. The former software engineer first broke out 10 years ago with his self-published debut novel "The Martian." "The Martian" went on to sell more than 5 million copies and was turned into a blockbuster movie with Matt Damon. Now Weir is back with a new offering about a reluctant astronaut who has to use his ingenuity to solve the biggest problem in the world, the potential end of the world.

The book is called "Project Hail Mary."

ANDY WEIR: "Project Hail Mary" is kind of a bunch of different story ideas that I had that ended up fitting together really well.

JEFF GLOR: Aside from short walks with his dog, Coco, Andy Weir has spent most of the last year plus cooped up at home. The travel he's avoided is more than made up for by his latest hero, a teacher turned astronaut who spends most of "Project Hail Mary" 72 trillion miles away from Earth.

ANDY WEIR: Ryland is our protagonist, who initially wakes up aboard a spaceship with complete amnesia. He has no idea who he is or why he's there. And he comes to realize that it's his job to save all of humanity from an existential extinction-level event.

JEFF GLOR: The premise, a mysterious algae-like substance is eating away at the sun, slowly plunging our planet into a new ice age.

It's like climate change in reverse.

ANDY WEIR: It is. It's like-- it's like global cooling, for lack of a better term. It's-- it's really bad. Not enough energy is hitting Earth.

JEFF GLOR: We won't spoil anything, but Weir's knowledge of science and skill at storytelling make even the most insane concepts seem plausible.

[BEEPING]

- Oxygen level critical.

JEFF GLOR: In his breakout novel "The Martian," astronaut Mark Watney, played here by Matt Damon in the 2015 film, is stranded on Mars in the year 2035 and forced to improvise to survive.

- Woo!

[EXPLOSION]

So, yeah, I blew myself up.

JEFF GLOR: As in "The Martian," the level of technical detail and explanation in "Project Hail Mary" is off the charts.

Do you want people to understand all the science involved, or do you just want them to come along for the story?

ANDY WEIR: Mostly, I want them to just enjoy the story. I-- my books are very science heavy, obviously. But I describe the science so that the reader can understand what's happening. I get feedback from a lot of readers that I've learned that a lot of them just skim the science. And they're like, yeah, OK. That's fine. I'm sure that's all right.

At first that annoyed me, right? Because I was like, oh, come on. It took me a long time to work this out. You should at least read it. But then I realized this is actually awesome. The reader trusts me so much that they don't even bother reading the science sections. They assume that it's accurate to real science. And that level of trust, for a reader having in you, that's just awesome.

JEFF GLOR: Are you building a spaceship over here?

ANDY WEIR: [LAUGHS] These are my table saws.

JEFF GLOR: When he's not working out plot twists, you can probably find Andy Weir building contraptions in his garage.

ANDY WEIR: This is my Artemis clock. So my second book, "Artemis," also known as that other book by Andy Weir, takes place on the moon. So this shows just time of day, like you'd expect. Down here is the main meat of what it does. That is what Earth looks like from the moon right now.

JEFF GLOR: He was an engineer before he was a writer and remains obsessed with the possibilities human know-how can open up on this world and others.

It seems like during the pandemic, maybe less people have paid attention to--

ANDY WEIR: Fewer.

JEFF GLOR: Fewer.

ANDY WEIR: [LAUGHS] I'm sorry.

JEFF GLOR: You sneaky little devil-- have paid attention to NASA and space issues, I think. And sometimes it even becomes a point of debate, where people get-- get mad about it. Why do you think moving forward, it's important for people to pay attention to?

ANDY WEIR: First off, a lot of good technology comes out of it. Second off, we will eventually reach the point where commercial space flight will be affordable to the middle class. And once we do that, a new multitrillion-dollar industry is going to be born.

And then finally, it's a point of pride for our society. So it gives us, I guess, bragging rights, which sounds silly, but it's a thing that every civilization cares about.

Maybe I can infect you a little bit with my faith in humanity.

JEFF GLOR: Andy Weir shows in his books that he dreams big, and no matter what, is almost always an optimist.

ANDY WEIR: I think we can all agree that 2020 kind of sucked, right? But would you rather-- I personally would rather live through 2020 again than live through 1920. None of my friends have died of typhus, and I've never seen a "no coloreds" sign in a shop window. That is not the world--

JEFF GLOR: Yep.

ANDY WEIR: --that I live in. So if you pick any two years in history, you're probably always going to prefer to live in the one that's later. And humanity just makes humanity better over time. For instance, here's something. I'm going to make a bold prediction. I predict that COVID-19 will be the last pandemic in history.

JEFF GLOR: Really?

ANDY WEIR: Yeah. mRNA vaccines are very, very fast to create now. You can create the vaccine in a matter of weeks, not months, not a year. I don't think people understand the magnitude of what happened in the scientific community in response to COVID. It's not-- they didn't just step up their game. They invented a new technology for how to deal with it.

So not only that, but also the concept of a pandemic is now part of the public consciousness. Everybody now understands what a pandemic is. If we get another pandemic within the next 40 years or so, this one will still be in living memory, and people will know how to act. They won't-- there won't be that learning process.

And I believe if we have a pandemic later than that, our medical technology will be able just to stop it in its tracks.

JEFF GLOR: You are a seer of seers, Andy Weir.

ANDY WEIR: I'm perhaps childishly optimistic, but that-- that is my-- my prediction. I also predict that we might never again have a day when there are no humans in space.

JEFF GLOR: Wow.

ANDY WEIR: Like, the last time that there were no humans in space was sometime I think in the early 2000s. Something like that was the last time that every living human being was on Earth.

JEFF GLOR: The end of pandemics, the continuation of humans in space. Is there a trifecta? Can we hit, like, one more?

ANDY WEIR: I don't know about a trifecta. I don't know. [LAUGHS] I don't-- I don't--

JEFF GLOR: That's probably good enough for now.

ANDY WEIR: I don't have a third one. We're going to have to stick with a bifecta.

JEFF GLOR: OK.

- The tri-- no, the trifecta was correcting you. That's the trifecta.

JEFF GLOR: On Derby Day, I'll take the bifecta or the trifecta, whatever else.

- Fascinating guy.

JEFF GLOR: He's a fascinating guy. The cool thing about "Project Hail Mary" is that-- I'm not advocating you skim, but it's 400-plus pages-- you can move over some of the science stuff quickly if it's not engaging you. It-- I enjoy it, but he moves the story along so well, and he tells such a great story that it's worth checking out. It's a cool beach read.

- You know, seeing the way he corrected you, I think that he's the type of guy who watches sci-fi movies and says, well, that would never happen that way because of the science. So I think he's trying to back up his own work against his own worst critics, which is probably likely him.

- Less.

JEFF GLOR: Don't-- don't read fewer books.

- Less. Less.