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Silicon Valley geeks out over 'The Martian'

Techies gush over the author of the popular novel during a prescreening in San Francisco of the movie, which is coming out Friday.

Matt Damon stars in the film adaptation of Andy Weir's "The Martian." 20th Century Fox

SAN FRANCISCO -- Andy Weir, author of "The Martian," wants you to understand that his book is just the story of an astronaut struggling to survive and escape Mars.

This didn't stop Michael Solana, a vice president at VC firm Founders Fund, from comparing the story to that of startups and of the entire tech industry at a Monday night prescreening of the movie based on Weir's novel.

Solana told the crowd here that the story is a "metaphor for what we do." Indeed, the movie glories in the hero's ability to solve problems using math and science for the higher purpose of space exploration. "The Martian," set to land at theaters on Friday, stars Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

The 20th Century Fox movie has become the talk of the science and geek-culture communities, grabbing regular headlines like Wired's "The Science in The Martian Isn't Perfect, But That's OK" and "Matt Damon Is Hilariously Profane In The First Look At The Martian." The movie's first trailer has snagged nearly 15.8 million views since posting on YouTube in June. That's not far from the 19.5 million views the first teaser for the next Star Wars film has racked up on YouTube since last November.

One Ph.D. candidate studying artificial intelligence at MIT noted at the screening that he stopped reading 50 pages before the book's ending, just so it wouldn't spoil the movie.

The gathered moviegoers (some wearing SpaceX shirts that state: "Occupy Mars") were also keen to meet and talk to Weir, who sat down with Forbes Managing Editor Bruce Upbin after the screening to answer questions. Weir said he didn't view "The Martian" as an existential "Robinson Crusoe" tale. Instead, it's more like a story by Isaac Asimov who, along with Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein, are Weir's science-fiction heroes.

"I spent my whole life as a space dork," Weir told the audience. "I wanted to talk about MacGyver on Mars." Many of his answers to questions from Upbin and the crowd on Monday exemplified this straightforward mindset.

Did Weir like the movie?

"Yes."

Was it better than other Hollywood movies about Mars?

Well, "Total Recall" with Arnold Schwarzenegger "has shooting."

Was he trying to inspire support for the US space program?

"I never have a point, or an objective, or an agenda when writing."

Weir said his rise to fame was unexpected. While he did try to become a published author during a three-year sabbatical from his computer programming career, he hit paydirt only after he went back to his cubicle. He wrote "The Martian" as a serialized story for his personal website.

On Monday, Weir explained that he only put the self-published e-book up on Amazon in 2012 because some people wanted an easy way to get the story onto their e-readers. Amazon wouldn't let him give it away, so he charged 99 cents.

Eventually, the book was so successful that it caught the attention of an agent, who helped him sign a deal with Crown Publishing. Weir got his book and his movie deals four days apart.

"That was an eventful week for me," he said, adding that he often had to sneak away from his desk at work to handle the negotiation calls.

A hardcover version was published in early 2014, and the book quickly hit the New York Times Best Sellers list.

The novel was clearly a labor of love. Google served as Weir's primary research assistant because he didn't have contacts in the space industry while he wrote it. He also used a NASA reference document from the 1990s called "Mars Direct."

A common comment about "The Martian" is that it seems like someone took the scene from the space-exploration movie "Apollo 13," in which engineers must build an air filter out of random parts, and turned it into an entire book. Weir agrees that the comparison is apt.

While Weir was rigorous in describing fictional astronaut Mark Watney's scientific efforts to survive Mars, he copped to one major inaccuracy. The story's premise is that a major windstorm forces a group of astronauts to flee their base on Mars, accidentally leaving Watney behind. But a windstorm on Mars, even a severe one, would feel like a "light breeze," Weir confessed, because the planet's atmosphere is so thin.

Nonetheless, he said, the idea was too cool to cut.

And what did Weir think when he saw his world rendered in 3D on the big screen?

"Nothing. I'm not a big fan of 3D."