How to build a moonbase: Author Andy Weir on following up ‘The Martian’

Andy Weir/Courtesy

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When conducting an interview, California law requires that you ask for consent before (and after) pushing the record button. This gave Andy Weir ideas.

“So anyway, that’s when I learned that elephant dung is not a toy. Anyways, go on with your interview!” is the first official line of our recording.

Weir — the best-selling author of “The Martian” — is in good spirits, joking with his usual sardonic humor over the banging of the new flooring being installed in his home. It’s a little surprising he’s not more nervous, considering the looming release date for his second novel, “Artemis,” was just around the corner. It comes after the smashing success of one of the best hard science-fiction books in recent memory, one that spawned a Ridley Scott-directed, Matt Damon-starring blockbuster that went on to win a Golden Globe.

“I’ve found that the northwest corner of my home office is the best place for cowering and crying, but sometimes the southwest corner gets good light in the morning,” Weir laughed, though not without a tinge of candor.

Weir’s new novel jumps settings from Mars to the moon and from exploration to colonization. It is set in a pseudo-near future, in a “resort town” that has been established on the lunar surface. Tourists can gawk at the Apollo 11 landing site and revel in the lower gravity, though both are somewhat blasé to the city’s permanent, working residents.

Weir, ever the world-builder, designed the entire city of Artemis from scratch before tackling the story. “I came up with a whole history of how they built Artemis,” Weir explained. “Like, OK, first you have to land the reactors, and a smelting facility, and it has to be fully automatic, and then you have rovers that are controlled by people back on Earth to go collect ore, to smelt aluminum …”

Hearing Weir describe it, it’s easy to see the software engineer in him — the flowlike, linear process by which he constructs his worlds, solving the necessary tasks one by one as they arise. In fact, he began his research for “Artemis” simply by asking what minerals were present on the lunar surface. As it turns out, it’s a ton of anorthosite, which contains predominantly aluminum and oxygen. “Basically, the moon is made of moon bases,” Weir explained with relish. “It’s just moon bases with some assembly required. I just thought that was really slick.”

Weir’s brain is brimming with details such as these, ones that could fill their own books — and which filled the vast majority of our conversation. Resisting the temptation to include all those details in the novel was clearly was a challenge. “What I wanted to do is say, ‘All right, reader, I did a lot of work to write this, so it should take you a long time to read it,’ ” he laughed, and continued, “ ‘Also, I want you all to acknowledge how awesome I am, so I’m going to show you all the research I did.’ I had to not do that.” Though despite his best efforts to resist, he had to slip in a textual reference to his favorite subject, orbital dynamics. “I’m only human,” he complained with a good-natured whine. “There’s only so long I can go without talking about orbital dynamics!”

Creating the world of “Artemis,” then, was not a large modal shift for Weir. Writing his protagonist Jazz, however, was — unlike the white, male Mark Watney of “The Martian,” Jazz is a Saudi woman.

According to Weir, several versions of “Artemis” existed before the one hitting the shelves, in which Jazz was only a tertiary character and the protagonist (now dropped entirely from the story) was male. “I had two or three scenes that would need a funny, likable smuggler-underworld type, so I created Jazz,” Weir explained. His decision to make her a Saudi woman was somewhat arbitrary. He wanted to pick an ethnicity he hadn’t used yet, and made her a woman because, according to Weir, “Well, why not?”

But by the third attempt at writing the novel, Weir realized that both Jazz was the most interesting character he had and he wanted to center the story on her. This left him with a problem — by then, he said, he felt Jazz’s character was cemented in his mind as a Saudi woman, and he was loathe to change her to something more familiar to himself (like a guy).

So he did the next-best thing — he assembled a team of sensitivity readers to give him feedback, primarily women at his publisher, Random House, along with some family members and his girlfriend. He also talked to a Muslim friend and State Department employee who’s been stationed around the Arab world, so that he might get insight into writing Jazz’s Saudi father.

Still, Weir worries. “I’ve spent my whole life being a man, and I don’t really know what the world is like from a woman’s point of view,” he said. “I was nervous about that; in fact, it’s the thing in the novel that I was most insecure about.”

In particular, he worries about her atypical personality traits. “She’s very immature for her age,” Weir explained, continuing that in a lot of ways, her flaws mirror his own — “Basically, I was a fuck-up in my 20s. … I am worried that people might mistake those flaws as being misinterpretations of how women are, you know what I mean? I’m afraid they’ll be like ‘Oh, this is what Andy thinks women are like?’ ”

It’s a sobering fear, and it’s not entirely misplaced. Writing from a perspective not your own is a thorny issue, and Jazz’s immaturity has, at times, the effect of infantilizing her, giving the novel a YA feel that might possibly alienate some readers in how they interpret her character. “It’s teetering on the dangerous edge of YA,” Weir admitted, and, after a pause, “I may have gone overboard on the immaturity.”

The decision to tackle a female character — and a Saudi-raised one at that — in his second novel might generate some growing pains, but if Weir gets his way, he might not need attempt it again in further sequels. “What I’d love is for Artemis to be my own Discworld,” he said, referring to the setting of a group of Terry Pratchett novels. “I would like to have a setting where lots of different stories can take place, not necessarily just a serial where I follow one set of characters around.”

Those sequels, of course, are contingent on the success of “Artemis,” whose first readers will be those enthusiastic supporters of “The Martian.” Weir is well aware that pleasing them all is probably impossible.

“A success like ‘The Martian,’ you’re lucky to get one of those in your entire career,” he said. “That may be my one huge hit.”

In light of that, I asked him what he hoped for with “Artemis.” “I just want people to read ‘Artemis’ and like it,” he said. “I want them to put the book down when they’re done and go, ‘That was fun.’ And I don’t want them to be able to put the book down until they’re done.”

“Artemis” is definitely a one-sitting read. And with a movie deal already made, Weir’s Discworld aspirations might not be too far off.

Contact Imad Pasha at [email protected]. Tweet him at @prappleizer.