Humans do not yet live on the moon, but author Andy Weir has a pretty good idea of how people could—and would—make their homes and live their lives there. He also has a pretty good grasp of how people could pull off a heist there, too.
He lays it all out in Artemis, the highly anticipated follow-up to his hugely successful book turned Oscar-nominated film, The Martian. And like he did for that book, Weir has done so much research and put so much thought into his new story, he makes what’s currently impossible sound possible.
“Maybe two or three years ago I said, I’d like to do a story about humanity’s first city that’s not on Earth,” Weir explained to io9. It’s a simple statement that led to Weir asking himself many more questions—starting with where the city would be. “Is it on Mars, on the moon, or is it just in orbit? I decided the moon was the most likely place where that’s going to happen. It’s much closer than Mars and it has resources you can use to build your city, unlike orbit where you would literally have to bring everything up.”
Turns out the author already had some experience with the construction site. “I’ve been designing moon-base ideas [since] I was a kid,” he said. “So I did all the engineering, physics, math, research, and stuff to figure out how to build a city on the moon before I made any stories or characters take place in it. World-building is fun, you know?”
But for Weir, “world-building” relies on a lot more than just his imagination. He wanted his moon city to be plausible and as realistic as humanly possible.
To do that, Weir started with the money—he devised a scenario where it made economic sense for humans to travel to and live on the moon. Once he figured that out, he had to figure out how to make the city safe and livable, specifically how it could be constructed, and where it would get its materials. All in all, Weir spent about a year figuring out how his setting, the fictional moon city of Artemis, could actually exist before inventing a single character or story.
“The thing with all of this [planning] is the reader only gets one percent,” he said. “Cause if it’s not essential to the plot, I’m going to leave it out.”
This, of course, necessitated that we bring you the answers ourselves. Basically, Artemis takes place in the 2080s, when the commercial space industry has driven prices down to the point that regular people can afford to go into space. Weir modeled the hypothetical development of commercial space travel after the commercial airline industry. He figured the hardest part of space travel is the energy—i.e. fuel—needed to get off Earth, so he took the percentage of revenue air travel spends on gas and figured out how long it would take for space travel to get to a similar ratio. Weir figures in about 60 years, it could hypothetically cost about $70,000 for a family to travel to the moon, a number he thought was just extravagant enough but not impossible. That was step one.
Step two is making sure the family arrives somewhere comfortable, safe, and sustainable. When we asked him about how Artemis was made, Weir went into so much detail that it was both amazing and ridiculous. Here’s just a small sample:
You can’t ship five million tons [of materials] to the moon, right? You need to get as many resources as possible from the moon. All right, what metals can you find on the moon? Well, there’s a shit ton of aluminum. Great. So, there’s a mineral called anorthosite, and if you smelted it, pulled the oxygen back, you’d get aluminum, silicon, calcium and oxygen. Great, so make the moon base out of aluminum and fill it up with the oxygen. The moon base is made of moon, just some assembly required... and then you’re going to need a lot of power. Way more power than any solar farm could ever hope to generate for you.
So, that’s nuclear reactors. So I went and researched nuclear reactors. People think of nuclear reactors as being gigantic cooling towers, and things like that you can’t upwardly transport, but, remember submarines can have nuclear reactors [on them]. So they can be built pretty small. So I looked up those, then I started to get into the stage secrets kind of area hard to find that information online—but, there are reactors that produce 27 megawatts of power that have like a core and the main reactor is like 1500 tons. That includes shielding and stuff like that. I’m like, ‘Okay, 15 metric tons, now we’re getting into the range of ‘You can put that on that moon’ in this future.
And on and on and on Weir went, slowly, connecting the dots of human survival using science—until eventually, the city of Artemis began to feel real. Then it was time to actually create the story and its characters
The man character of Artemis is Jazz, a woman of Saudi Arabian descent who smuggles goods and services on the moon for a living. She’s offered an opportunity for one huge, high-stakes heist that would set her up for life, but in doing so, she basically puts all of the city at risk.
Having been raised on the moon, Jazz’s culture is primarily Artemis’ culture, but Weir was still cognizant that he was a man writing a novel with a female protagonist.
“I gave the manuscript to every woman I could trust with it—my girlfriend, my mother, my editor’s boss, my editor’s assistant—and just said, ‘Please give me feedback on how this woman feels to you. Does she seem realistic?’” Weir explained. “I got feedback and made changes. But in the end, I’m not a woman. I didn’t grow up one. I didn’t spend my life seeing the world as one. This whole world that I don’t know anything about, I [tried] to research. I gave it my best shot, but I was very, very conscious of this.”
He was also conscious of the inevitable comparisons between Jazz and Mark Watney, the lead character of The Martian. In Weir’s mind, Watney was kind of idealistic and one-dimensional. He wanted to stretch himself with every character in Artemis, especially Jazz, and make them more complete and complex.
“Jazz is a very flawed character,” Weir said. “She’s a very flawed person. She’s impulsive, she’s immature, she’s greedy. She has questionable morals at times. Hopefully she’s still likable. She has a strong moral core. But she’s not just this super-competent badass like Mark was. And some people have misinterpreted that to be like, ‘Oh, he writes women as these messed-up head cases like Jazz.’ And I’m like, ‘No, that’s just Jazz.’”
With Artemis out today, Weir is cautious not to get too far ahead of himself, but he’s excited about the possibilities. The movie rights have already been sold (Phil Lord and Chris Miller are in talks to direct, and Weir is meeting with them soon), and if everything works out, he wants Artemis to be the setting for more stories.
“I would love to write sequels to Artemis,” he said. “I’ve already got ideas. But I don’t want to just write sequels about Jazz and her contingency. I’d like to write many different stories that take place with many different groups of characters. Think Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. So maybe this character will show up in a small capacity in that book, but, it’s really just a bunch of books that all stand on their own but take place in this fantasy setting. And that, to me, would be awesome, if I could have my personal playground of Artemis to do that with.”
Considering how much research he’s already done to create a fictional yet functional version of the first human city not on Earth, finding new stories should be the easy part.
*Correction: We misquoted a rock Weir mentioned. We believe it was “anorthosite” not “anthracite.” Thanks to E.B.