Realistic sci-fi is a hot genre, and perhaps no one is more responsible for its meteoric rise than The Martian author Andy Weir. In this full interview with Weir—which first appeared in the January 2018 issue of Writer's Digest and also includes outtakes that didn't appear in the magazine—he offers a peek into the research process for his moon colony-set follow-up, Artemis.
BY TYLER MOSSi
Andy Weir isn’t into all that dystopian stuff.
Sure, if a story is well-crafted, he can get roped in like the rest of us (he specifically praises Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One). But in general: global pandemic, nuclear holocaust, zombie apocalypse—Weir could do without. No, the author of 2014’s runaway bestseller The Martian—which introduced readers to wisecracking, MacGyver-esque astronaut castaway Mark Watney, left to survive on Mars with only his wits and scientific savvy—prefers a more optimistic view of the decades to come.
“One thing that seems to have all but disappeared from science fiction is aspirational views of the future—looking at the future as if it’s something cool and awesome,” Weir says. “I just don’t see a lot of that nowadays. So I wrote it.”
His Martian follow-up, Artemis, out this November, takes place on a titular moon colony in the 2080s. The setting is effectively a space-based tourist town, the economy of which revolves around visitors to the Apollo 11 landing site. Transportation to and from Artemis (as well as the attractions within the city) is affordable only to the mega-wealthy—but a host of hard-working artisans, hospitality workers and other year-round residents keep the colony afloat. Among them is protagonist Jazz Bashara, a package runner and part-time smuggler who gets caught up in a web of criminal activity after her affluent, morally ambiguous patron is brutally murdered. Like The Martian, the story pairs humor with impressively detailed realism—from the colony’s economics to the chemical process through which oxygen is extracted from aluminum smelting, the specifics are based in hard science.
A software engineer and avowed space nerd, Weir had written two prior manuscripts that never found traction before deciding to make the self-publishing jump with The Martian, which he posted serially on his blog before reader enthusiasm prompted him to produce a Kindle version in 2011. The novel found prodigious success on Amazon, attracting the attention of both Crown Publishing and 20th Century Fox. Fast-forward four years to 2015, soon after The Martian became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, when the film version—directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon—released and went on to earn seven Oscar nominations.
Weir’s abiding positivity about the future is apparent in his authorial origin story—that of a writer who persevered and punched through every wall the industry put in front of him, eventually breaking through beyond anything he could’ve imagined: At the 2016 Hugo Awards, Weir was honored with the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer; 20th Century Fox has already picked up the rights to turn Artemis into a film; and he’s currently writing and producing a NASA-themed drama pilot for CBS.
Weir put down his pen for an hour to chat with WD about where he’s going, and where he’s been. See the full interview below, and you can find it in the January 2018 Writer’s Digest.
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Not only are your plots based on real scientific principles, but those principles are explained in an accessible way. How does knowing that what’s depicted in your books could really happen enhance the story for readers?
Well, I think it adds a lot of plausibility. It’s easier to suspend disbelief if you’re like, “Oh, that’s real science,” and if you believe that all the way down to the core, as opposed to more soft science fiction (which, by the way, I’m a huge fan of). With that, you’re just accepting there’s faster than light travel: I don’t know how it works but that’s not important.
Artemis features a strong female protagonist in Jazz Bashara—a wise-cracking space smuggler in the Han Solo tradition. How did you determine that a woman would play the lead role, and did you find any challenges in assuming her perspective?
It was interesting. I came up with the idea of Artemis, the setting, a while ago. I was like, OK, I’ve got a pretty awesome setting, but I need a story to take place in it. I thought of a bunch of different story ideas, and I just went through revision after revision—this isn’t writing, this is just me brainstorming over months. I kept [thinking], That plot is not very good, this story isn’t very good. One thing I noticed was that all of them had Jazz.
[At] first, Jazz was a minor secondary character—kind of a lovable rogue in the background who was the underworld connection. Then in my next revision, she was a little more prominent. I’m like, Huh, the only part I like out of any of these ideas is Jazz, so why don’t I just make a story about her?
This put me in a situation where I’m writing a female lead and I am not a woman. I’m nervous about that. I am worried that women will read it and think, This is a woman written by a man, so I put a lot of effort into trying to make it a very realistic female character. There’s not a lot of romance for Jazz in this story. Mostly it’s just creative problem solving, and at that, women are the same as men: It’s just intellect. That I can handle. [For] all the turns of phrase and how she speaks, I gave [the manuscript] to as many female readers as I could who are “in the family”—editors at Random House, everybody who could be trusted with the manuscript, including my mother and my girlfriend—to tell me anywhere it didn’t feel like a female voice.
The colony of Artemis is such a well fleshed-out setting—from the bubbles the citizens live in to the different trade guilds and tourist sites. In general, what is your approach to world-building?
Imagine the U.S. in the future with an Apollo-era mindset. For Artemis, it was all emergent from, OK, you’ve got a city on the moon, someone’s got to clean the toilets. Think about your day: You get up in the morning, you shower. Where’d the soap come from? Well, then someone’s got to do it, so there’s importing. So there’s shops. So there are people who work in the shops. Those people have to live somewhere—what is the cheapest form?
[The world-building came from] solving all the little problems of daily life in a city where anything that isn’t made in the city is incredibly expensive. I started with the science. I [thought], I want a moon= city. How can I make that happen? The first question I had to ask was the economics, because that’s the thing that always bugs the crap out of me in science fiction stories. If you have your lunar colony, why do people live there? Why are there people living on the moon? Nobody lives anywhere without a reason. There has to be an economic foundation for everything, and the standard answers that science fiction has for that are pretty unsatisfying. So I turned back to history and said, “Why do people go settle new places in the first place?”
I based it on resort towns. Like, here’s an island and it has some nice hotel casinos on it, beautiful beaches and ocean, people like to go there. Then the support structure for all that has to be people who aren’t rich—who live there and this is their life. In the end, Artemis is just a frontier town. This has all been done before. If you imagine a town in the Old West, you’ve got a blacksmith and you’ve got the cattle baron. That’s what I used.
You’ve mentioned being inspired by sci-fi authors of the ’50s and ’60s: Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke. What about those authors and their writing has influenced your work?
[I love those classic books where imagined societies] still have their problems, but you’re like, I’d rather live there than here.
A lot of [contemporary] science fiction has become this dystopian nightmare stuff. The whole young adult market is all these bleak, dismal futures, and I don’t get why that happened because, to me, it’s clear that the future is almost always better than the past. I mean, at least in the long term. Ask yourself: Would you rather be alive right now, or in 1917? Or 1817? Or 1717?</eM I’d take now, and my guess is if you ask somebody from 2117 if they’d rather be alive then or go back in time to 2017 they’ll say, “Oh lord, no, I want to stay in 2117.” I think it’s clear that in the real world the quality of life for people goes up and up over time. We have our dips and valleys—I’d rather live in 1923 than 1943, especially if I were European—but I would rather live in 2023 than 1923.
Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke wrote largely aspirational stuff. Their vision for the future was: It’s cool,
there’s regular space travel to and from here, you can just go to Mars—and that’s awesome.
You were a full-time computer programmer when you wrote The Martian. How did you carve out time to write with that busy schedule?
What really helped a lot was having no social life whatsoever. I’m a fairly indoorsy guy. I like hanging out with people, but I really like being at home; I’m a homebody.
I get happiness out of just sitting in front of my computer and dinking around, researching stuff . I enjoyed the process itself to a certain extent. Don’t get me wrong—it was still a huge pain in the ass to write a whole book. I was posting things a chapter at a time to my website, so I’d get feedback every chapter. Just knowing that people were there eagerly awaiting the next episode kept me moving.
Sci-fi with mainstream/crossover appeal has become increasingly in-demand. What are your thoughts on that trend, and was appealing to that broader audience something you felt you had to keep in mind while writing Artemis?
I was very surprised in The Martian finding such a broad audience. I thought I was writing it for just a very small percentage of people. I had no idea it would get so popular.
For Artemis, now I’ve got a broad fan base that I need to satisfy. I think it comes down to: You need to have a good story. It’s not enough just to be science. Just like there’s a lot of really crap fantasy stories out there, it’s not enough to just say there’s magic in the world. There has to be an interesting story behind it. I think if you have a good story, people will be into it regardless of its overall genre.
When you were writing Artemis, did you just focus on trying to tell the best story you could, or were you thinking about maintaining those elements from The Martian that made it such a hit?
The humor is just my narration style. That’s how I roll, that’s all I’ve got. People always ask, inevitably, what were your inspirations? What were some stories that inspire you? For The Martian, I say Apollo 13, both the real events and the film. Now, when people ask me this for Artemis, I always surprise them. One of my main inspirations was [Roman Polanski’s] Chinatown. It’s the story of the ugly shit that happens when a city is growing.
That’s what Artemis is about. Notice my inspiration has nothing to do with science or science fiction: It’s a tale of urban growth.
I’ve interviewed other authors who were releasing new books years after a runaway bestseller, and they all acknowledged the pressure. How has that affected you?
It’s been on my mind nonstop. I’m not kidding—it’s the sophomore effort, right? Now we find out if I’m actually a writer or I just got lucky. I’ve talked to George R.R. Martin and he’s like, “Oh yeah, that never goes away. When you’re on your 27th book you’ll still feel like, This is the one where they realize I’m a fraud.” It’s comforting to know that I’m not alone in these feelings.
All I can say is that I like Artemis, I feel like I’ve done a good job, and it was a lot of pressure. Self-imposed pressure. Before Artemis, I wrote 70,000 words of a different book that I had in mind. It just wasn’t coming together. I was just like, “This isn’t a good book. If I release this, people won’t like it. I don’t like it.” It was very difficult for me, but I abandoned it. I may come back to it someday if I have some major restructuring ideas.
On The Martian, there was zero pressure. It took me three years to write, which is not something a publisher would be cool with now. Sometimes I’d go months without doing anything on it at all. Artemis was like, Don’t feel like working? Noted. Get your ass to work.
Where did you find the wherewithal to keep writing in the face of challenges and rejections, and what advice would you give to others in that position?
What kept me going, and would hopefully keep other writers going, is that you get better at it. It takes a lot of time and effort to get good enough at writing to make books that are fun to read, and you just need to accept that. I don’t believe that there’s any such thing as a deep, natural gift at writing. Even writers who are famous for just one book did a lot of writing before they wrote that book. If you’re feeling discouraged, compare your recent writing to writing that you did a long time ago and see if you feel like you’ve improved. The answer will be yes, you’ve surely improved. [From when] you sit down and play the piano for the first time ever, you’re going to be a lot better when you play the piano for the thousandth time.
There’s this feeling in the world that artistic ability is just a gift and there’s nothing else to it. I think it’s a skill set. It’s no different than math. It’s a thing you need= to learn how to do—you need to practice it, you need to get better at it. The Martian was my third full-length novel, and there’s a reason those first two weren’t published: Because they sucked. But the second one sucked less than the first one.
It's made clear throughout the fastidious detail in the novel that the moon colony portrayed in Artemis is one that could really exist in the near future. That includes everything from the complex chemistry you described, to the physics, to economic theory. What is your research process like? How do you go about accumulating information and how much plotting do you do in advance of actual writing?
Well, I actually start with the science in this case. I started off on this one by saying, I want a moon city, how can I make that happen? The first question I had to answer was the economics, because that's the thing that always bugs the crap out of me in science fiction stories—especially stories that have a colony or a moon base, or something like that somewhere. That's the thing that always bugs me, is that I'm like, Wait a minute, if you have your lunar colony, why do people live there? Why are there people living on the moon? Nobody lives anywhere without an economic reason, basically.
There has to be an economic foundation for anything, and the standard answers that science fiction has for that are pretty unsatisfying to me. Like a lot of sci-fi, it'll be like, they're miners. They're moon miners, they mine the moon. I'm like, Well, couldn't you send robots to do that? Why put delicate, difficult-to-maintain human beings on the moon when you could just send a robot that mines stuff? [And maybe the writer will say], "Oh, okay there's something really, really rare there like Helium 3 or something." Again, [why not] robots? Then they're like, "It was population pressure, that's why. Population pressure; people had to go live somewhere." I'm like, Wouldn't it be easier to colonize Antarctica, or the Sahara, or the ocean? I've never bought into that either. They're like, "Political freedom." I'm like, Well, if a bunch of political refugees can get to the moon then whoever they're running away from can surely get to the moon, too. Right?
I never bought into any of those, so I turned back to history and said, Well, why do people go settle new places in the first place? Why do they ever do it? The answer is always economics. There always has to be some economic purpose. If you're a cobbler and you're going to move to another continent, why do you do it? Well, it's because you got offered a really good shoe making job somewhere.
That's what I had to do. Step one was the economics. I said, Okay, how do I explain why there's a city on the moon? And what I came up with is a two-tiered approach. Basically it's economics and tourism, although you've read the book and you know it's a lot more complicated than that.
Once the economics is there, the premise is that space travel has been driven down to the point that middle class people can afford a once in a lifetime trip to the moon, and that's why Artemis exists. Then the next question is, How do you make a city on the moon? It still costs a lot of money to transport stuff there, and cities are heavy, so how did it get there? How do you do it? I said, Well, obviously you use what's there … and the moon has a ridiculous amount of aluminum and a ridiculous amount of oxygen. [There are minerals all over the moon that] you can smelt into aluminum and oxygen, which is awesome because basically the moon is made out of moon bases. You can just pick up this rock and turn it into a moon base hole, and the air to fill your moon base with. It’s just all right there, it's awesome.
I was like, Okay, well, what's the best way to smelt anorthite? I just Googled around, my usual research process. The FC Cambridge [smelting] process, that requires a lot of energy, which means they're going to have to have a reactor, way the hell more energy than you can hope to ever have with a solar farm. They need a reactor, they need a couple of reactors. Okay what is the lightest reactor? That was my next thing: What is the lightest nuclear reactor that exists and how much does that weigh? It turns out you can get a 27 mega watt ... well, you can't get one. I can't get one. But the Army can. They can get a 27 mega watt nuclear reactor that weighs about 15 tons. Getting 15 tons to the moon is something that is a reasonable investment. It's a lot of money, but it's in the hundreds of millions range not the trillions and trillions range.
Now you've got power, you've got a smelting facility, and you can just start building your moon base. The economics builds up from there with the knowledge that as long as you have a tourism industry, everything's going fine.
[But] you've read the book, and you find out later that Artemis' economy is actually more like California's gold rush economy, where it's really the influx of people bringing their bank accounts with them that was powering the economy, and now that the population plateaued they're in real trouble.
Right. Interesting. So you use historical models for these kinds of things then?
Yeah. Exactly. So, why did Europeans bother coming to North America? Well, there was a bunch of resources here that they wanted to bring back. Go back in time further, why did the Polynesians expand? Why did the Polynesia expansion happen? Why did people who were presumably content on their islands go out and find other islands? I don't know why they did that. I ascribe that to the basic human desire to expand. Why did people cross the land bridge into North America in the first place? They left the relative safety of their villages or whatever, the human civilization on that side of the land bridge, to come over into Northern Canada where there were no humans at all. No support system, nothing. You're doomed if you have a problem. I don't know why they did that.
I've read interviews in which you've mentioned being inspired by classic sci-fi authors of the 60s and 50s like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein. What about those authors and their writing has influenced your work?
That's a tough question to answer. I can say that there's the adage, “Everything is cooler when you're 10.” Everything is awesome when you're that age and those were the authors that I was reading, so that's one of the reasons I love them just straight up. But they influence me a lot probably in the ... well, one thing that seems to have all but disappeared from science fiction writing now is aspirational views of the future. Just looking at the future as if it's something cool and awesome. They still have their problems but you're like, I'd rather live there than here. That seems to have disappeared.
A lot of science fiction has now become this dystopian nightmare stuff. The whole young adult market is all these bleak, dismal futures, and I'm like, I don't get it. I don't get why that happened because to me, it's clear that the future is almost always better than the past. I mean at least in the long term. Ask yourself: Would you rather be alive right now or in 1917? Or 1817? Or 1717? I'd take now, and my guess is if you ask somebody from 2117 if they'd rather be alive then or go back in time to 2017, they'd say, "Oh, lord no, I want to stay in 2117." I think it's clear that in the real world the quality of life for people just goes up, and up, and up over time. Yeah we have our dips and valleys, like I would rather live in 1923 than 1943, especially if I were European, but I would rather live in 2023 than 1923.
I guess circling back, Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke wrote largely aspirational stuff. Their vision for the future was like, it's cool. There's regular space travel, you can just go to Mars and that's awesome, [or] here's a story of a couple of teenagers who are on an adventure out on the surface of Mars. I just don't see a lot of that nowadays, so I wrote it.
I love that. You look at pop culture, and you look at all the TV shows, and movies, and a lot of the novels, and it does seem like everybody does have that dark view. It's kind of refreshing to have a bright form of futurism.
Yeah. I've always thought that Star Trek was a good example of that. There's always all sorts of crap going on that's really dangerous and stuff like that, but Star Trek itself, that future, would be pretty cool to live in.
It would actually be pretty cool to live on Earth during the era of The Federation. It's a nice place to live, the quality of life is high, they're a post-scarcity society. I think it kept that aspirational view of the future, but I think a large part of that is because that's where Star Trek began, and it's 50 years old now. If Star Trek were invented today, I'm guessing it would be a lot more bleak and miserable; a dark and foreboding galaxy with an evil ... The Federation would be a fascist government that people are trying to overthrow.
Yeah. I think that's a good point.
We've still got Star Trek fighting the good fight of optimistic sci-fi.