Andy Weir scored an unexpected best-seller with his debut novel The Martian. Originally self-published online and then brought to print in 2014, it became an Oscar-nominated blockbuster movie, and propelled Weir into the forefront of the science fiction world. Today, he’s releasing his second novel Artemis, a heist thriller set on the Moon.
At San Diego Comic-Con, Weir told me that following The Martian was scary, and that he shifted his expectations with writing it. Artemis trades the scenery of Mars and Mark Watney for the Moon and Jazz Bashara, a small-time criminal who smuggles goods to people living in the Moon’s only city, Artemis. She’s summoned to the home of a regular customer, who presents her with an offer she can’t refuse: help him sabotage a mining operation, so he can take over a critical government contract for his own purposes. Things go south, and Jazz winds up in the midst of a conspiracy that will determine the future of her home.
I recently spoke with Weir about how he built his lunar civilization, and why he tries to avoid politics in his stories.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Artemis is very different from The Martian. When we spoke before, you said you didn’t want to do a carbon copy of your first book. How did you develop this story?
I started by developing the city itself. I really wanted to write a story that takes place on humanity's first off-world home, the beginnings of humanity’s colonization of the Solar System, that kind of thing. I wanted to define the city on the Moon. First thing, I had to ask myself why there’s a city on the Moon. Why would anybody go live there? What's the point? There’s a lot of fiction out there about this, and there are a lot of unsatisfying answers: “We’re there to mine it!” So send robots. “Earth is overpopulated!” Well, colonize the Sahara or the ocean floor. Literally every location on Earth is easier to colonize than anywhere on the Moon.
So I asked: what about tourism? Tourism is by definition people being somewhere. Okay, so that will only happen when the price to low Earth orbit is low enough that little people can afford to go. That’s kind of the conceit of Artemis, where the commercial space industry has driven that price down far enough that it's affordable. It’s not not cheap, by any stretch of the imagination, but doable. So I designed the city with that in mind. I built it from the ground up, figuring that they’d need to be efficient, they wouldn’t want to waste a huge amount of money or resources. Once I was done with that, I had a setting, then set about working on story ideas. The contents of the book are actually the third story revision. I came up with two completely unrelated stories with different characters before this version.
You spoke at New York Comic Con about how Jazz was initially a side character, but became the main character. What about her appealed to you most?
Whenever I watch TV or a movie, my favorite character always ends up being one of the secondary characters in the story. The main character isn’t as interesting to me as the plucky sidekick or the shady weapons dealer. Jazz was originally just a lovable rogue, a tertiary character, but I really like her, because she gets to be snarky and funny, just to say and do the things we all think about but never say or do. She was just the most interesting character to me.
What was your process like, in terms of making her the story’s lead?
A large part of it was, I was just rooting around for a plot. The first couple of stories I had were really weak, but the only likable part of it was Jazz. So I decided to explore her life, see what she does, and what problems she runs into.
She’s not like a mob boss or anything, but she’s shady, and people like her can get into trouble pretty quickly, and there's a lot of potential in that. So I started thinking about how could she get in trouble, and I wanted to tie in how the city works.
You decided to set your story on the Moon. How did you go about researching the place to design your lunar settlement?
For The Martian, I did tons and tons of Google searches. I now know a lot of scientists from places like NASA, but honestly, it’s just faster to search online. The space industry and space in general is extremely well-documented online. It’s not like military or industrial technology, which is generally secret. It’s very well-documented, and it’s really easy to research this stuff online.
My approach was pretty similar to The Martian. There was a lot of problem-solving, where I would have to decide for myself how to design something. I actually deliberately did not look into other people’s ideas for how to build a lunar settlement, because I enjoy the process of coming up with this stuff myself. I also wanted it to be uniquely mine.
The story revolves around a plot to take control of Artemis. How did you develop that story?
A lot of the underpinnings of Artemis, and a lot of the things that make things happen in the story come down to economics and the realities of a frontier town. There’s also an unexpected twist that will impact the city in a big way. Ultimately, it comes down to economics. Where you have an unregulated — for lack of a better term, libertarian society — people will be like, “Oh, where there are no laws, the best place to take advantage of stuff like that is economically.” Artemis is the perfect place to launder money, because you can convert currency from anywhere in the world into its local currency. Nobody can really figure out where it went.
A lot of books out there explore the ideas of a libertarian society on the Moon: Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and more recently, The Moon and the Other by John Kessel. Why do you think that’s the case, and why did you go in that direction in Artemis?
Well, I'm not trying to get too deep into political speculation, and I certainly didn't have any political agenda here, but I think that's just how frontier towns are. Frontier towns, if you think of the Old West, you’ve got a sheriff, and that's about it. Laws aren’t strictly enforced, because you don't have the police force that is able to enforce things like zoning. You don’t have a strong central government in a little isolated society like that. The laws, such as they are, are really more social rules that are enforced by people themselves. That’s what always happens in a small, isolated society.
Why do you think books about the Moon particularly focus on this?
Because most lunar novels take place in an era where the Moon is just being colonized. If you have a story that takes place on the Moon a thousand years after it’s colonized, you’ll probably have a complete, complex society with its own rules and government. But most stories are about the first settlement or the first people there, and it’s still a lawless place.
The society on Artemis is split between service workers who live there, some wealthy residents, and super-rich tourists who are visiting. Why did you design the society around such inequality in life?
I believe that’s the emergent behavior. I’m not making a statement — I’m never making a statement — it’s just that Artemis’ income comes in via tourist money, so I modeled the economy after Caribbean resort towns. There’s no Earthly reason to have a civilization there, other than to come out for vacation. It’s the same economics. Artemis has hotels, and places that cater to tourists, and behind that is the austere accommodations for the people who live and work there. It’s sort of an inevitability. Literally every tourist town is like that.
Why do you try to avoid politics or political statements in your stories?
Well, it's just a matter of personal taste. A lot of science fiction authors consider it a major part of storytelling to include a political message. That’s fine for them, but it's not what I want to do. Ultimately, you can’t please everybody, but I try and write books that I like to read, and I don't like reading stories with a political message.
The main reason I don't like them is that nobody likes to be preached at. But more importantly, it kind of messed with my ability to enjoy the story, because I no longer believe the story could go anywhere. I know for a fact that the universe of this book will conspire to validate the reader’s political views. If wealth divide is the political message of the day, and you have a book about a plucky young, attractive woman who is poor and she's fighting against a big corporation, I guarantee you there’s not going to be any revelation that she’s misguided, that the corporation is good. The plot twist will be that it’s a corporation putting profits ahead of human life. It takes away from my ability to enjoy the book, because so many possible avenues of plot are guaranteed to not happen, and I can pretty much guess the ending at that point.
I want to be clear, I’m not against the people who do enjoy that, or writers who write that way. This is just my personal preference for reading. There is this whole argument going on in the science fiction world about how much politics should be in a story. Not only do I not want to put politics in my story, I don't want to be part of that argument either.
You mentioned in our last interview that you are hoping to do a series of these stories about Artemis. What do you see for the future of this book and this character?
I would love it to not be quite a series, but I would like the Artemis setting to be the setting for many books. I would like to write more books that take place in Artemis, but not necessarily with Jazz. I’d like it to be my own personal Discworld.
I always really enjoyed those books. As a single setting for lots of different, unrelated stories, that setting becomes so tangible and solid in your mind that you really believe it. I would love for people to read book after book after book taking place in Artemis.
Is there any part of Artemis that you later realized you wanted to explore more?
I’m actually working on another book now — I’m not going too crazy with it yet, because I don’t know how well Artemis will be received — I’m thinking I’d like to do a story about Rudy, the cop, solving another murder.
A while back, you also branched into screenwriting with a script about mission controllers. What’s the status of that project?
That’s right. We made a pilot for CBS, but unfortunately, they didn’t pick it up for a series. It was an interesting process, and it was neat to see how TV shows were made. It was different: when you’re writing a novel, you get to literally just decide every single word. When you’re writing a screenplay, you end up with 20 different people making decisions, so you can end up with something a little foreign to you.
The other big news recently is that Artemis’ film rights were purchased, and the former Solo: A Star Wars Story directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller are attached. What’s the status of that?
Nothing that you don’t already know. It’s weird, the gears grind slowly until they go really fast. Right now, they’re going slowly. I don’t know what the status is now, but I’m an eager and excited bystander.