Andy Weir - Is there life after Mars?
The Martian author Andy Weir talks about his new book Artemis, how he built an entire lunar base in his head before he wrote it, and how hard it is to make a decent cuppa on the Moon…
Andy Weir's first book, The Martian, was a worldwide success and the film adaptation was a box-office smash. Artemis, his newly-released second book, is set in a city on the Moon and follows a small time criminal that gets in way over her head. In the latest issue of BBC Focus magazine we catch up with the American author about his new story, owning Mars rock and brewing tea on the Moon - here's a taster of the full interview with Andy Weir:
What is Artemis about?
Artemis takes place in a city on the Moon. The main character is a woman called Jazz, who’s a small-time criminal that gets in way over her head.
Where did the idea come from?
I’d had the idea for quite a while. I actually built the whole setting – the lunar base – before I came up with the characters or story. One of the biggest challenges in sci-fi for me is lowering the stakes. People tend to expect planets to be cracking in half, but for me, the lower the stakes, the more realistic the setting. Metropolis in Superman doesn’t feel like a real city to me, because every Tuesday there’s a meteor coming to destroy it. With Artemis, I hope it feels like a real place. Whether the main character lives or dies, the city will go on.
Is it daunting try to follow up a book as successful as The Martian?
Inevitably, Artemis is just going to get compared to The Martian. I’m looking forward to my third book when people will hopefully stop doing that!
No one would ever accuse The Martian of being literature. There’s no character depth, no one undergoes any sort of change, you don’t even really know much about Mark Watney, who you spend 350 pages with. You just know he really didn’t want to die. For Artemis, I wanted more character depth. So Jazz is very flawed, she has lots of problems, she makes bad decisions. She does the wrong thing sometimes. That’s very important for me: I make mistakes, so I find it hard to empathise with characters who always do the right thing.
Watney is the aspirational version of me. He’s all the parts of my personality that I like, and none of the parts that I don’t like. He doesn’t have any of my flaws, neuroses or anxieties.
Mark Watney had his love affair with potatoes… what do they eat on Artemis?
Well, they import a lot of food from Earth, so you can have anything. You can get a steak. But the cheapest food is gunk. It’s basically chlorella algae, which is a real blue-green algae that you can grow in vats. The cool thing about chlorella is that it reproduces by doubling, so you can double your stock within a few days, and if you grow it right it’ll give you everything you need, nutritionally.
It’s clear in The Martian, and clearer still in Artemis, that you build worlds in your mind’s eye for the characters to inhabit. What’s that process like?
It’s easy. I could spend all day doing it. The hard part is making characters and stories to happen in them. I like to set up the rules first and then play the game within them.
With Artemis I started off simply, with an economic reason for there to be a city on the Moon. It bothers me when I’m reading sci-fi and there’s a Martian city with 10,000 people living there, but I’m left wondering why. Cities don’t happen without an economic reason. For every city on Earth there’s a reason it’s there. So for Artemis, my explanation is that the price to get a craft to low Earth orbit is driven down by competition in the booster market by companies like SpaceX. Once you get out of Earth’s gravity, visiting the Moon doesn’t actually cost much more. I figured once we get to that point, a lunar city would develop naturally because of the tourism potential. Then I worked forward. How do they build it? It’s a tourist destination, so I went online and looked at some tourist spots in the Caribbean and so on. And that became the foundation of Artemis.
Next it was the fun stuff, the science. Thinking about how they might build a city on the Moon. You don’t want to ship up hundreds of millions of tons of aluminium, so they’d make metal out of materials found on the Moon.
To read the full interview pick up a copy of BBC Science Focus issue 315 or listen on our latest podcast.