The dark horse literary star discusses his new book ahead of his upcoming Mountain View event.
By Mark Noack
For Andy Weir, these are indeed stellar times.
Just a few years ago, the Mountain View native was penning a story, between shifts as a software engineer, about an astronaut stranded on Mars. He freely posted chapters for all to read on his website, and for the spendthrifts, he offered a 99-cent e-book version.
Then Weir captured the kind of hat trick that every writer dreams of: his book The Martian rocketed to the top of Amazon’s sci-fi list, Crown Publishing gave him a print deal that resulted in 3 million copies sold, and Twentieth Century Fox came knocking to snatch up the film rights.
Now, Weir is back with Artemis, his second published book and proof that he’s no one-off writer. In this new novel, the namesake Artemis is humanity’s first city on the moon. And true to his reputation, Weir has carefully researched the technical details for how a livable colony could exist on the lunar surface.
On Tuesday, Dec. 12, Weir will be at Books Inc. in Mountain View for a sold-out book-signing and speaking event, with Dr. Pascal Lee, Director of the NASA Haughton-Mars Project at the Ames Research Center. We caught up with Weir to ask a few questions (and then went digging through NASA’s photo archives to provide some outer space ambience).
In a nutshell can you describe how you came up with the idea for Artemis?
Well, I wanted to write a story that takes place in the first human city that’s not on the Earth, and I ended up designing a city on the moon from scratch. So I was thinking: You don’t want to ship the entire mass of a city to the moon, you want to make it from local materials.
You have the anorthite on the moon and that gives you aluminum to build the city and that can also give you the oxygen to fill it, and then you have silicon for your glass. It was perfect. If I were to make a fictional planet like this, my readers would call bullshit on me.
I created the whole city before I thought of the plot or characters. People are clever; they can tell when you’ve adjusted the setting to the characters.
Why a city on the moon? Why not return to Mars?
I set the goal to make this the first human city not on Earth. That means it’s either in low orbit, the moon or Mars. Well, low-Earth orbit is out since there’s no resources to take advantage of at all. The moon is so much closer, so you can get to it in seven days, and you could have a tourism industry.
On the other hand, Mars is a place you go to stay since it’s so far. What economic reason would there be to have a city on Mars?
So Jazz Bashara, the Artemis protagonist, is a far cry from Mark Watney from The Martian — Can you tell me a little bit about how you developed her?
I designed the entire city of Artemis before the plot or character. I outlined it, and had a general idea of the scenes. Jazz was a character in those draft scenes, but she was extremely minor. I needed a somewhat likable underworld-type, a criminal that the reader won’t hate.
Since Artemis is an international city, I decided she should be from Saudi Arabia — because there’s a country I haven’t used yet. And I’ll make her a woman because I don’t know why.
Well, that draft, I didn’t like it. It wasn’t sitting well with me. I ditched it, but it came up with another story, and in that second story Jazz was more prevalent. She gained a bit of depth, but that second story also didn’t work out, but I realized Jazz was an interesting character. I knew that focusing on her would make this a crime novel, but I didn’t mind that.
Was it hard to write from the perspective of a Saudi woman?
Saudi Arabia wasn’t a challenge at all. Jazz has lived in Artemis since she was 6 years old—she’s fully Artemized. By definition, her cultural norms and ideals are correct since I made up the culture she’s part of, so I get a pass on that. However I did have to make her act like a woman; men and women are equal intellectually, but they look at things differently so that was a challenge.
That’s why I referred to some experts, in this case—women. Unlike The Martian, this time my draft was like a state secret and I couldn’t just post it online or else someone would put it up on Pirate Bay. I gave it to every woman in my circle of trust. I asked them to read and give me feedback on the believability of Jazz as a woman, and they pointed out some stuff to me.
Let’s talk about the science in Artemis — what were the most difficult challenges of writing about a lunar civilization?
The science was the fun part! Research and world-building is my favorite part. I wanted to make a city on the moon, so now I have to figure out how they would smelt anorthite. I found this method called the FFC Cambridge Process so that’s what they’ll do.
Well, how much energy would that that take? Well, it turn out it’ll take so much energy, way more than a solar farm could produce! So they’re going to need nuclear power on the moon, so how do you get a nuclear power? It’s one problem after another. That’s the shit I live on, I love it!
Were there any particular areas where you had to invent a magic solution?
The main MacGuffin is the economics. The book is based on the price of getting to low-Earth orbit being brought way down. I wrote an article that Business Insider posted on what the price could be if competition came in. It would be about $7,000 to put a human into low-Earth orbit, or about $35 per kilogram. So based on that, everything else becomes economically viable, and profitable.
There is another MacGuffin—the ZAFO, which I won’t explain since it would be a spoiler. There’s no such thing as that. But there are people researching similar technology, so there’s a kernel of truth there.
So you’re going to be appearing at next week’s book reading with Dr. Pascal Lee from NASA. Did the team at NASA Ames help you as you researched this book?
No, but I’m sure they could’ve and would’ve.
In the end, I still do most of my research with Google. It’s faster, it get results right away and space technology is one of the best documented things out there. Researchers are always posting what they do online, and they’re extremely proud of their work.
Also there’s very little in the way of military or industrial secrets in the space world. If I need to know the thurst of this kind of rocket, I can find it in two minutes. It’s just easier to use the internet.
Did you get any technical points wrong?
Well, unlike The Martian where I had my whole mailing list to check when I did something wrong, I didn’t have that luxury this time around.
The book’s been out for a few weeks, and there’s one upper-level math problem that I got wrong. There’s a part where Jazz does a calculation knowing the three numbers used in a passcode. I wrote there were 54 different possibilities, but the correct answer is 36.
So how does it feel to be the first person in Mountain View who actually left an engineering job and found more success as a writer?
I bet I’m not the only one! I’d bet there’s a lot of former tech folks in Mountain View who are making a good living writing tech manuals and library-related stuff.
I liked my job when I worked for MobileIron. I won’t bore you with what I was working on, but I really liked my team, and I held onto that job longer than I needed to. I left only when I no longer had the time to do it and also write. That was 2015.
Andy Weir will be speaking at 7 p.m. on Dec. 12 at the Mountain View Books Inc., at 317 Castro Street. Check here for more info.
Email Mark Noack at [email protected]