The Martian — both the 2015 Matt Damon film and Weir’s Martian novel — captured a lot of attention for Weir’s meticulous scientific research and detailed description of the tech operated by protagonist astronaut Mark Watney. He’s delved into all the geeky minutiae again with Artemis, which was released this week. Named for the Greek deity, daughter of Zeus and twin of Apollo, Artemis is a city on the moon in his book.
Weir has imagined Artemis down to the last detail — including the taste of coffee. (It’s “disgustingly cold,” by the way, since water boils at lower temperatures in Artemis’ lower air pressure). The book seems poised for success. A-lister Rosario Dawson has given voice to Jazz, its protagonist, in the audio version, and Twentieth Century Fox has bought the movie rights, with Chris Lord and Phil Miller signed on to direct the movie version.
Weir tells Inverse why he selected Kenya as the location of the space corporation that would make a Moon city possible; offers his expectations for the Artemis movie, and shares who he turned to for advice when writing his Saudi Arabia-born female narrator, Jazz Bashara.
“I would love to write a bunch of stories that all take place in Artemis, not necessarily with the lead same characters.”
If a city on the Moon is built in your lifetime, would you visit?
Nope. I’m an Earthbound misfit. I will stay on this planet.
I’m not sure how long I’d last in Artemis if they didn’t have decent coffee.
That’s an issue a lot of people have pointed out. It’s funny — that one little line — I’ve gotten so much feedback on that. People are like, “Well, you could make the coffee in a pressure cooker, or you could cold-brew it.” There’s a lot of options here. People are happy to do the suspension of disbelief to go into Artemis, but by God, they won’t give up their coffee.
Did you do any crowd-sourced fact-checking when writing Artemis like you did for The Martian, or was the manuscript under lock and key?
It was lock and key. Because it was a traditional publishing contract this time. One thing I did do — I was pretty insecure about writing a female lead, so I basically gave it to every woman that I could trust not to put it up on Pirate Bay or whatever. So, my mom, my girlfriend, my editor’s boss, my editor’s assistant, the copy editor — everybody who in the kind of inner circle of people I could trust, I was like, “Please give me feedback on anywhere that it doesn’t ring quite true.” So I guess there was a little bit of crowdsourcing there a bit, but that was about all I could do.
What feedback was most helpful?
Just a lot of specific turns of phrase. One thing I learned during this process is there are certain cases where a man and a woman will convey the same thought with very different words. And so there were a lot of places where my beta readers, for lack of a better term, would say, “This is kind of a very man way of saying this. A woman would say something more like this.” That sort of thing.
Also adding to the complexity of it is that [the protagonist Jazz] is from a rough-and-tumble, kind of frontier town, and she’s from a society that I made up, so she doesn’t have the cultural norms that are familiar to the people who are reading it. And she’s also just this really flawed character. A lot of the feedback I got was, “She’s really acting very immature here.” I’m like, “Well, yeah she is immature.”
Reading Artemis, it was fun to return to some Mark Watney-esque dry humor, which Jazz shares, and I’m guessing is also your own sense of humor.
Yeah, that’s just me. It’s kind of I guess all I got, that first person smart-ass thing. Actually both Mark and Jazz are based on me. Mark has all the aspects of my personality that I like, that I’m happy with, that I’m proud of, and none of my many, many flaws. He’s just the idealized version of me.
Jazz is a little more like the real me. Immature, has made bad life decisions, doesn’t apply herself enough, y’know kind of acrimonious relationships with people where it didn’t need to be. And so I was trying to make a deeper character than Mark.
What would you say is the least scientifically plausible thing in Artemis?
Well, I tried to be as accurate as possible. It’s even more scientifically accurate than The Martian. And in fact, even though it takes place many decades later than The Martian takes place, it has less projected technology, so to speak. Like in The Martian, the propulsion system for Hermes is a VASIMR drive, which exists but would need a lot of development before it got to the point that it was at in The Martian. In Artemis, literally everything there is stuff that is real. All the technology shown in Artemis is real. It exists today. In that form too.
Including the — no spoilers — game-changing piece of tech that shows up later?
Okay, that one — yeah, I’m sorry — that one is fake. That one I made up. However, I saw an article not too long ago about that. I saw an article about a week ago about that concept. People are like, “oh it looks like photons will do this thing, actually,” under the right circumstances. And I was like, “Oh, awesome.”
This is like the water on Mars discovery.
Do you have a year in mind when Artemis takes place? That’s not explicitly stated in the book.
It takes place in about the 2080s. And Artemis was founded in the 2060s.
I suppose some things would have to change by then in Kenyan culture for a community like Artemis to launch (literally) from a space corporation in Kenya. You made clear that people in Artemis are more tolerant than current Kenyan law right now that really limits LGBT rights.
I am extremely unknowledgeable on the details of Kenyan politics. So I wouldn’t purport to be any sort of expert on that. But I do believe that politics is always secondary to economics. I think that where the money is flowing, the politics will orient itself around to keep that going. So in my fictional setting, Kenya is the center of the global space industry because they realized they can bring the space industry in, because they’re on the Equator, which makes it cheaper to launch to low Earth orbit, because you’ve got the rotation of Earth helping you. And it gives you about one-fifteenth of the total velocity that you need just by being on the Equator.
And then the other thing is that they — the fictional version of Kenya — made a bunch of laws to encourage the commercial space industry. They said, “We’ll seize the land for a launch facility, you can come here, you can stay there for free. You still have to pay taxes, they’re lower than you would pay anywhere else. We’ll make all these special laws just for the Kenya Space Corporation such that they don’t have to follow the union laws that the rest of the country has to follow.” Literally everything they can think of to bring global space industry into Kenya. And it worked. And so now they have this multi-trillion-dollar-a-year industry that’s centered right in their country, and it’s brought them prosperity. They don’t really care what people do in Artemis as long as they pay rent.
So, there’s a film adaptation of Artemis in the works.
Well, yeah, one would hope. 20th Century Fox has bought the film rights, which is awesome. And they have attached the directing duo of [Phil] Lord and [Chris] Miller to direct. I’m pretty excited about that. But a million things have to go right for a movie to get made. So I can just kind of keep my fingers crossed.
Here’s a hypothetical question for you — a rather realistic hypothetical, considering Hollywood trends: What will you do if the studio, producers, whoever say to you, we wanna cast such-and-such white actor in the role of Jazz?
I would say my piece, but I have no authority. Actually I tried to work it into my contract originally — into the film contract — that the actress would have to be at least an approximate skin tone that could pass as Saudi, but they wouldn’t go for that.
‘They,’ as in folks at Fox?
Yeah, the studio wouldn’t go for it. And I can understand why. Because in the end, a movie studio is there to make money. And if they have an opportunity — if for whatever reason, Jennifer Lawrence says, “I wanna play the lead in that,” they’re like, “We’ll make an extra $100 million just by having her as the lead” — they’re not stupid, and they’re not going to throw away money. So I can understand.
That having been said, there’s a very wide pool to draw from. If you wanted to have that kind of complexion and hair color, there’s a lot of people who match that. It’s not just Middle Eastern actresses. There’s Bollywood actresses. South American. Native American. There’s a wide range. But again, like I said, I have no say. I think my biggest concern would be, if they did that, if they put a Caucasian in the role, they would end up having to change, probably, Ammar [Jazz’s Muslim father] into a devout Catholic instead or something like that, and that would kind of change a lot of his character. I would be bummed if that happened.
Was it important to you or to the story to show a community that’s tolerant of people of a variety of ethnicities and sexual preferences?
I had no — and I never, by the way, have any political agenda or moral or message in my stories. So I just want to be clear on that.
I think it is an emergent behavior of a frontier town though — how do I put this? Small communities don’t have the luxury of racism or bigotry. It’s a thing that you really can’t do when you’re all so interconnected. Culturally, Artemis is similar to a Midwestern town in the early 1800s in a lot of ways. Not in all the morals, but the economic co-dependency of literally every one who is there. The economics, though, of Artemis, I based that on resort towns. Caribbean resort towns, where, okay, you have the big, opulent hotels, and then the more austere living conditions of the people who live and work there.
But even if you go back into the 1830s or something like that, a time where America is, compared to now, considerably more racist and bigoted — still in these small towns, a guy’s like, “Well I don’t like Jews, but Schwartz there runs the general store, and we do business every day, so I don’t like Jews, but I like Schwartz.” And that’s kind of how it works out when you have these small towns, no matter how much bigotry they have, they end up working together anyway. “You’re part of my inner circle.” It’s a weird thing with bigotry or prejudice that gets applied to the crowd you don’t know but not to the people you do.
You’ve gotten to hang out with a lot of really cool real-life scientists — Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, NASA scientists. Is there anyone from science and tech industries who’s still on your wish list, who you’d still like to meet?
It’d be neat to meet [physicist] Brian Cox.
What piece of pop culture are you obsessed with right now?
Well, you just caught me as my girlfriend and I just finished binging Stranger Things season 2.
Thoughts on Stranger Things 2?
Oh, I loved it. I thought it was fantastic. I’m really happy because they had a pretty high bar set by their first season that they had to follow up on. I didn’t like the episode where Eleven went to Chicago by herself. I would have rather had another episode of stuff happening on Hawkins. I don’t know if they were setting up for a backdoor pilot, maybe? It was interesting — I just wish it hadn’t eaten up one of the Stranger Things episodes.
What’s next for you? What other projects do you have in the works?
Well, right now, I am poking at the ideas of a sequel to Artemis. I would love to write a bunch of stories that all take place in Artemis, not necessarily with the lead same characters. Jazz might be a minor character in the next story. I would love for that to be the case, kind of like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Artemis can be my personal sandbox.
Artemis is now available from U.S. publisher Crown and U.K. publisher Del Rey. It’s available on Amazon.