Ep. 31: Andy Weir on the Economics of Sci-Fi and Space

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Before writing a single word of his new book Artemis, Andy Weir worked out the economics of a lunar colony. Without the economics, how could the story hew to the hard sci-fi style Weir cornered the market on with The Martian? And, more importantly, how else can Tyler find out much a Cantonese meal would run him on the moon?

In addition to these important questions of lunar economics, Andy and Tyler talk about the technophobic trend in science fiction, private space efforts, seasteading, cryptocurrencies, the value of a human life, the outdated Outer Space Treaty, stories based on rebellion vs. cooperation, Heinlein, Asimov, Weir’s favorite episode of Star Trek, and the formula for finding someone else when stranded on a lonely planet.

Listen to the full conversation

Read the full transcript

TYLER COWEN: Science fiction is so much about creating new worlds and making them believable, and pulling the reader in. And Andy Weir is a master of that. In his new book, Artemis, it’s set on the Moon, and the basic setting is lunar tourism.

So what are the economics, Andy, of how we can make lunar tourism work?

ANDY WEIR: Well, actually, I’m glad you asked, because I put a huge amount of effort into that before I even started writing the book. One thing for me that’s always bugged me about stories that take place in an off-world colony are the economics of it. It’s like, if a story’s like, “Oh, the purpose of this lunar colony is mining,” I’m like, “Well, why don’t you have robots doing the mining for you?”

COWEN: Sure.

WEIR: Why risk humans? People mind if humans die. They’re not that upset when robots die. [laughs] So I decided tourism is kind of the answer to what is the economics behind it.

And the main conceit in Artemis is that the price to low Earth orbit has been driven down by competition in the space industry, to the point that middle-class people can afford to go into space. And I actually wrote a whole paper on that, which is on Business Insider right now, where I justify that by drawing parallels with the airline industry.

On the economics of the moon

COWEN: So this is the year 2080. So, I’m a potential tourist. Talk me into — what’s the killer experience on the Moon?

If it’s low-gravity sex, I can have that in space. If I want to look back on the Earth, I can go into low orbit. On the Moon, it’s hard for me to go outside for long or without considerable danger. What’s the killer app up there?

WEIR: Well, the main thing is tourism because Artemis is right next to the Apollo 11 landing site. So it’s a site of historical significance that people like to go to. Also, just dicking around in one-sixth gravity is fun. [laughs] And I wasn’t making a sex joke there; I mean bouncing around and having fun.

COWEN: Sure.

Now, in your story, there’s a Cantonese meal served at one point in the narrative. A lot of the people are eating this algae gunk, which is cheap and not very tasty, but you can get Cantonese food. How is it that you thought about how much that food would cost? And in 2080, what does a good Cantonese meal on the Moon cost?

WEIR: Well, it would depend on what a good Cantonese meal weighs. Because I worked out with my economics stuff, I worked out the price of transporting mass to the Moon, and it works out to be — in 2015 dollars, it works out to be about 160 2015 dollars to the kilogram.

And so, to that end, in Artemis, the kind of de facto monetary unit is called “slugs,” which means soft-landed grams.

COWEN: It’s not a cryptocurrency, though. It’s a thing.

WEIR: It’s not a cryptocurrency. It’s actually, in a way, store credit.

The Kenya Space Corporation — which you’ll probably ask me about later — this Kenya Space Corporation ships things to and from Artemis, and they own Artemis itself. And you can buy store credit, and so 1,000 slugs will get you 1 kilogram transported from Earth to the Moon.

So if you want to transport some nice Cantonese food, the price will be whatever the cost of the actual Cantonese food is, plus its mass in grams, in slugs.

COWEN: And why is Artemis run by the Kenya Space Corporation?

WEIR: Well, Kenya — in my fictional setting, Kenya had two things to offer the global space industry.

Number one, they’re on the equator. Launching from the equator takes less fuel and costs less money. That’s why our launch complex is in southern Florida, because we wanted to get as close to the equator as possible. Because you’re taking advantage of the Earth’s rotation to get a free (about) 500 meters per second. For reference, you need 7,800 meters per second to maintain low Earth orbit. So you’re getting about one part in 15, or one part in 16, for free, just by launching from the equator. So that’s a big economic benefit — that saves you a lot of fuel.

Second off, Kenya is on the eastern coast of Africa, which means . . . You always launch to the east to take advantage of Earth’s rotation, and so that means that the launches go out over the water. So any failures would fall harmlessly into the ocean, instead of landing on potentially populated areas. Like if you put your launch complex in Ghana or something, you’d be launching over mainland Africa.

COWEN: Ghana would be a terrible idea, right? Who would do it in Ghana? [laughs]

WEIR: Well, that was another candidate I thought of because it’s also on the equator. But . . .

And then the other thing they had, that they realized they could do, is they could offer policy. So I had the minister of economics for Kenya come up with this plan to draw the space industry into Kenya. And she basically made sure that Kenya had the most unbelievably business-friendly laws for the space industry, special rules. Because one of the main things that gets in the way of private space exploration right now isn’t technology anymore, it’s policy.

“So I had the minister of economics for Kenya come up with this plan to draw the space industry into Kenya. And she basically made sure that Kenya had the most unbelievably business-friendly laws for the space industry, special rules. Because one of the main things that gets in the way of private space exploration right now isn’t technology anymore, it’s policy.”

COWEN: Sure. Travel of all kinds. Try commuting into Washington, DC.

WEIR: Right. [laughs]

COWEN: It’s a policy problem, right?

WEIR: Well, it’s not so much policy on that; that’s an insufficient infrastructure problem. [laughs]

But no, the Outer Space Treaty and our adherence to it, and other nations’ adherence to it, to these details of a treaty that’s really, really out of date now, causes a lot of problems. And so, in my fictional version, Kenya says like, “We’re going to interpret the treaty a little differently, so that, yeah, we’re not going to let people militarize space, and we’re not going to let people claim territory outside of Earth. All the main bullet points of the treaty, we’re going to preserve. But we’re not going to require a specific type of FM transmitter to be aboard every probe so that we can monitor them.” You know, all this stuff like the US does. So by doing that, they drew in this multibillion-dollar commercial space industry into Kenya, and tax them very little, but still tax them. So Kenya benefits, the space community benefits.

COWEN: Given our unwillingness to lose individual human lives these days, which is a theme in your earlier novel, The Martian, and we’re less willing to do a kind of experimental process, will space travel, and especially reentry, ever be safe enough that middle-class, say, Americans, even in 2080, are going to put their lives on the line going to the Moon?

And would you do it?

WEIR: I would not do it, but I don’t even like to fly. So I’m the wrong person to ask. I have a phobia of flying. I have to take meds just to be able to get on a plane. So, me personally, no.

However, I don’t see any reason why space travel couldn’t become as safe as commercial air travel. If you described commercial air travel to someone from the 1800s, they would say, “Are you kidding? There’s no way that could possibly be safe. You’re going to go several hundred miles an hour and you’re going to be 30,000 feet up in the air, and you’re telling me that’s safe?” But it is. And so I don’t see why space travel wouldn’t follow suit, with enough research.

COWEN: In your story, you raised the possibility that this Moon base might in fact be a kind of economic bubble because the increase in population is slowing down, population might even be turning negative, and this danger of a kind of colony collapse. I hope this isn’t a spoiler. Do you thus also think that countries on the Earth today with declining populations are possibly also bubbles?

WEIR: No, countries on the Earth today are very different than Artemis. Artemis has at least . . . Well, you learn more about its economy later on in the book, but Artemis is a delicate economy because it’s a single-source income. So it’s like a resort town.

COWEN: So there’s not much income from mining, say?

WEIR: No, there’s actually pretty much zero income when you think of it as a . . . like a trade deficit point of view. They don’t export the aluminum that they create. They use the aluminum to build more Artemis.

If you think of Artemis as a single economic entity, the only money that enters the system is tourism, tourism money. But there is another avenue by which money enters the system, which is immigration. When people move to Artemis, they bring their life savings with them. So that also brings money into the system. But then when Artemis’s population starts to plateau, then they find out that they may have accidentally made a Ponzi scheme.

COWEN: In your economic model, how expensive is water on the Moon?

WEIR: Well, water would . . . Water weighs a kilogram per liter, right? So if you wanted to just straight up ship water to the Moon, that would cost you 1,000 slugs a liter.

However, you wouldn’t just ship water to the Moon. You’d ship hydrogen, in tanks, and react it with the oxygen, which is in plentiful supply. It’s a byproduct of smelting aluminum. So you would actually only have to bring up one-ninth of that mass in hydrogen. So in other words, for 1,000 slugs you could get nine liters of water.

But it actually gets a little more complicated than that, or actually a lot cheaper than that. Because water isn’t consumed — when you drink water it doesn’t disappear from the universe.

COWEN: Correct.

WEIR: You get rid of as much water as you bring into your body. As much water as you bring in, comes out, through your breath, a lot more than you expect actually comes out through your breath, and then through urine and feces, and sweat and everything else. So, really, what you’re paying for when you want water in Artemis is water purification.

COWEN: Even on Earth, it can be efficient to drink your recycled urine, right? So surely on the Moon, that’s likely to be the case.

On Elon Musk and private space travel

COWEN: What do you think of Elon Musk and other private space efforts?

WEIR: I think private space and commercial space industries like that are the way forward. I think that’s how we will reach a point where we end up with a booming space industry, and I think that’s how the price to low Earth orbit will eventually be driven down far enough that middle-class people can afford it. And once we reach that magic point, then there’ll be a huge space boom. It’ll become a multitrillion-dollar industry, like the commercial airline industry.

COWEN: Here’s a question from a reader: quote, “I would love to hear his thoughts on NASA’s Office of Planetary [Protection], the guys who try to keep our organisms from ‘infecting’ other planets. Sterilizing everything that we send to other worlds is very expensive and it might be important or it might not.” What’s your take?

WEIR: I am not a fan. And I’ve mentioned this a few times in the past.

My main concern is this. OK, so just run through a little flowchart in your mind. Start off by saying, “Is there anything that’s on Earth, any organism on Earth, that can survive an eight-month journey through the vacuum of space and the radiation of space, and all the other rigors of being just out in space, that can survive the trip from Earth to Mars?” OK, maybe some tardigrades could; it’s possible; maybe some bacteria inside of something could. OK. But if your answer to that is no, then there’s no need for planetary protection.

If your answer is yes, then the next question is, “Is there any life native to Earth that could find anything to eat on Mars?” That there’s any, anything . . . “Would it be able to survive and reproduce on Mars?” I don’t think it would. So if the answer to that is no, then there’s no need for planetary protection.

If it’s yes, then ask yourself this: “Would that life that you accidentally introduced to Mars — ”

Oh, sorry. Right at the top of this flowchart, ask, “Do you think there’s life on Mars?” If the answer is no, there’s no need for planetary protection. If the answer is yes, then move into these other steps.

Now, so since we’re assuming there’s life on Mars, move ahead to, “Would the Earth life somehow be more adept at surviving on Mars than naturally evolved Mars life to the point that it would displace it and ruin the Mars ecosphere?” Seems very unlikely to me, so I would say no.

But if your answer to that is yes, then ask yourself if the Soviets properly sterilize their probes.

[laughter]

WEIR: If you think the answer is yes, well, OK. I think the answer is no, in which case it’s already infected.

But let’s say it did. Then, the final thing I would say is this. Mars is a planet; it’s big. You’re not going to ruin the entire ecosphere, if it has one, by accidentally infecting one area. And so, to give people . . . What I try to say to give people a notion, what I mean by this — if you’re going to have surgery in New York City, you do not need every gas station in Bangladesh to be sterilized.

COWEN: Do you believe in the panspermia hypothesis? And if you do, does this imply we should actually subsidize sending nonsterilized life forms to Mars? Because there’s always some chance that you would create some kind of long-term panspermia hypothesis scenario on other planets.

WEIR: Well, my understanding of the panspermia hypothesis is that there was a single genesis of life, but that may have infected multiple planets.

COWEN: Doesn’t have to be a single, but there’s a smaller number of origin points than final number of planets with life.

WEIR: The basic conceit is that life was able to, through some natural processes or accident of fate, get from one planet to another, take root and then also go there.

I don’t believe that that has happened. And I also don’t believe we have any sort of responsibility to deliberately infect other planets with life. If it is of value to us to go to Mars, then we should go to Mars. And if it’s of value to us to devise a crop that would grow in Mars’s native environment, then sure, go ahead. But I don’t think we have some strange manifest destiny, moral imperative to infect the solar system.

Also, I’ll just tell you that, yes, I’m a science fiction writer, and yes, I’d love for us to discover life on Mars, but I really don’t think there’s any. Because on Earth, it’s very difficult for you to find any part of Earth that isn’t teeming with life. If you just grab a liter of air, or ocean water, or snow from Antarctica, or sand from the Sahara Desert, if you grab any of that and look at it, it’ll be absolutely riddled with microbial life. But on Mars, we’ve found literally nothing.

So I find it extremely hard to believe because life is very good at getting everywhere. And if it’s had like four and a half billion years, like Earth has had, to evolve and adapt, then why isn’t it just everywhere on Mars?

COWEN: But let’s say it’s 2080, your books have continued to do very well —

[laughter]

COWEN: Your grandchildren are billionaires and they’ve read your books, maybe —

WEIR: I like this.

COWEN: They’ve talked to you and they think, “I’m going to send out some self-replicating Von Neumann probes, powered by solar energy.” And they’re going to try to seed the rest of the galaxy with life. Most people who try this will fail, but philanthropy is a somewhat unusual and diverse endeavor.

And, in equilibrium, don’t societies that survive to the point where they can put beings on the Moon, on Mars, end up with self-replicating Von Neumann machines — and thus some version of panspermia is actually likely?

WEIR: I think the best self-replicating machines are ourselves. I mean, we’re really a lot better at it than any machines that we’ll have by 2080. I understand what you’re saying with the Von Neumann machines —

COWEN: Just send bacteria, right? It’s cheap.

WEIR: Just send . . . Yeah. Bacteria —

COWEN: Whatever you can pack in . . . Chuck Berry songs and bacteria.

WEIR: Yeah, right. It would be a lot easier to genetically engineer a bacteria that could survive on Mars than to create a Von Neumann device that could reproduce itself on Mars. I mean, why not take advantage of all this stuff that the first two billion years or so of evolution — that worked all this out for you?

On governance in space

COWEN: Now let me ask you some questions about governance in space. I’ve read some of your favorite works are by Robert Heinlein, Moon Is a Harsh Mistress; Red Mars of course by Kim Stanley Robinson; Asimov’s Caves of Steel. And it’s a consistent theme in these stories. In fact, the stories you love, they involve an element of rebellion.

WEIR: They do.

COWEN: If we had a colony on the Moon, how long do you think it would be before that colony would seek independence from Earth rule?

WEIR: Well, first off, it wouldn’t be Earth rule. It would be ruled by some specific country. Right?

COWEN: Sure, or company.

WEIR: Or . . . Country. You can’t really seek independence from a company.

COWEN: Well, it could be like the East India Company, right?

The Kenya Space Corporation, they have some features of East India.

WEIR: Right. They’re much nicer than the East India Company was.

[laughter]

WEIR: Yeah, well, the Kenya Space Corporation in my book is just . . . They have a very simple business model. They build Artemis and then rent out lots. They don’t try to control its economy or its people or anything. They’re literally just landlords, and absentee landlords at that. But you can’t declare independence from a company because, by definition, the company owns all the assets.

If you say, “I’m independent from the company,” what you’re doing is resigning. Right?

COWEN: Well, you’re stealing, in a way. But it happens, right?

WEIR: Yeah. But if you’re talking about some sort of revolution or something like that, well I guess the first step is you’d have to be pretty sure that you are self-sufficient and independent. You have to be, like, Earth-independent. Which, in the case of Artemis, it’s not.

COWEN: But you have some allies. So what’s now the United States declares independence from what was then Britain, and the French help us. Other people who are upset at Britain help the American colonies to become independent.

So as long as you have some outside allies, wouldn’t you expect, within say 50 years’ time, a lunar colony, a Mars colony would try to seek independence so those rents could be captured by domestic interests?

WEIR: Possibly. Ultimately, I believe that all major events in history are economic. And, I mean, independence was really about who gets to collect taxes, right? So if the people who live in a city are content with the economic status that they have, they’re not going to rebel. People don’t . . . People, despite what you see, I would challenge you to show me any situation where people revolted over purely ideology without any economic reason.

COWEN: But think about the American colonies. So the British were taxing us maybe 5 percent of GDP —

WEIR: And the American colonies preferred that those taxes went to the American colonial governments. [laughs]

COWEN: Yes, absolutely. But it wasn’t that much money, in a sense. That to me is what’s surprising.

WEIR: Well, at that time, taxes globally were not that much money.

COWEN: Yeah.

When you read these books by Heinlein, Asimov, Kim Stanley Robinson . . .

WEIR: Yeah, they always end up being political thrillers and that’s not what I’m going for. I’m showing the frontier town and the kind of cooperative aspects of human nature. I’m not . . .

For some reason, every book about colonizing space ultimately seems to lead to a revolution. Because that’s exciting, right? It’s Star Wars.

You know, you’ve got a rebellion, so “yeah, we’ll throw off the yoke,” and it has historical parallels and it’s all awesome like that. But I don’t necessarily think that’s going to be the case. Partially because as long as we keep following the rules of the Outer Space Treaty, which I believe we will, there’s no such thing as sovereign territory outside of Earth. So Artemis is, functionally speaking, an offshore platform.

COWEN: On Earth, do you think we should experiment more with seasteading? Set up sea colonies?

WEIR: Yeah.

COWEN: Underground colonies?

WEIR: Absolutely.

COWEN: Have them be politically autonomous, if they want?

WEIR: You would have to change maritime law to be able to do that. Right now, under maritime law, you can seastead. I mean, you can do it right now. You can go out into the international waters and build something. You have to flag to some country, though.

COWEN: Right. A cruise ship, yeah.

WEIR: Yeah. Well, yeah, you could flag to like Suriname or something like that. You could fly a flag of convenience. But, one way or another, you are subject to the laws of the country that you’re flying the flag of, just as Artemis is subject to the laws of Kenya.

On the value of a life

COWEN: Now, one theme in your story The Martian is this difference between an individual life and a statistical life. And I think on the very last page of The Martian, you mention that hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to save this one life. And it’s clear that in the actual real world, we would do something similar. But if you consult economic studies, well, what is a life supposed to be worth, an anonymous life? That often comes in at about $8 to $10 million.

WEIR: [laughs]

COWEN: What is your view? OK, for that single life, of course we’ll spend the hundreds of millions; everyone’s watching on TV. But what are the limits of spending that kind of money to save individual lives? Where do you draw the line? How do you think about that philosophically?

WEIR: Well, I guess it would come down to . . . If you were going to spend that money to save other lives instead, how many could you save?

COWEN: Right.

WEIR: Right. So it’s like, well, you can spend $50 million to save this one person, or you can save these 80 people by giving them much-needed surgeries or something like that.

COWEN: Smoke detectors. You’ll never know which people you saved.

WEIR: But you never really know. But that’s when the devil’s in the details, in your fitness formula, where you’re like, “OK, how many people, how many human lives will I save by dumping $1 million into cancer research?” How many human lives does that save?

COWEN: It could be zero, right?

WEIR: It could be zero. But that could be that last million that makes the aha moment. Or if you amortize it over all the money that’s ever been spent on cancer research, and then versus all the lives that have ever been saved by cancer research . . . That, you see, it’s all about the fitness formula. So it’s one of those questions that is deceptively simplistic, but ultimately gets really, really complicated when you start drilling down into the details.

COWEN: Let me ask —

WEIR: Well, let me ask you this. Let me ask you one.

COWEN: Yes.

WEIR: Let’s say we can cure cancer; we can do it today.

Oh, actually, no, to hell with cancer. We can cure malaria, let’s say. The number-one killer of human beings in the world is malaria.

COWEN: And we almost can. This will be a reality soon.

WEIR: Well, OK. But let’s say all other attempts fail at malaria. We don’t know what to do. But then, here’s — aliens from outer space come and they say, “We’ll tell you what, we’re going to give you the cure to malaria and we’ll just eradicate the Anopheles mosquito. And all malaria will be gone from your planet forever. But we want all your redwoods.” All right, “We want every redwood tree on your planet; we want it to become extinct. We hate redwoods; it’s part . . .”

COWEN: It’s a deal. They could ask for a lot more, in fact.

WEIR: Right. They could ask for a lot more. So it would be OK for us to render the redwood, the entire species, extinct, if we could save the millions of people a year that malaria kills.

COWEN: I’ll toss in the elms to wipe out pink eye.

WEIR: Yeah, yeah, yeah, [laughs] to wipe out pink eye. Yeah.

But then I say — all right — the aliens from outer space go, “Oh, this one malaria patient is on the verge of death and none of your doctors can save him. We’ll save his life in exchange for destroying all the redwoods on your planet.”

COWEN: No.

WEIR: Well, now you’ve just . . . Somewhere between those two things is the value of human life versus the value of redwoods. [laughs]

COWEN: Sure. I think we should be more impersonal in terms of how we think about value of human lives. But in individual cases, we so often aren’t.

On particular technologies in space

COWEN: Let me ask you some questions about particular technologies, but feel free to pass if you don’t have an opinion.

Especially as it relates to settling the Moon, or maybe Mars (of course that’s harder) — but 3-D printing: Does it play a major role in how you think about this happening, or not?

WEIR: I think 3-D printing is a major technology in manufacturing, in general. So it’s not specific to the space industry. It’s like saying, “Oh, how do you think refining steel affects industry?” It’s like, it affects everything. And so I think 3-D printing is something that will have this omnipresent effect across all aspects of manufacturing, including the space industry.

COWEN: Will a lunar settlement use blockchains as a substitute for some forms of centralized command and control?

WEIR: You mean like . . .

COWEN: Like behind Bitcoin. But you can use blockchains to register property titles, to store decentralized information.

WEIR: No. Not at all.

COWEN: Not at all?

WEIR: I don’t think that’ll happen at all. I also don’t think that cryptocurrency is a good idea.

COWEN: Why not?

WEIR: Because investing, if you are investing in a . . . If the currency’s inherent value is the potential for the currency to go up, that’s always going to fail, as a currency. Every time in history that people have tried that, it’s failed.

COWEN: OK.

[laughter]

WEIR: Without exception.

“I don’t think that’ll happen at all. I also don’t think that cryptocurrency is a good idea…If the currency’s inherent value is the potential for the currency to go up, that’s always going to fail, as a currency. Every time in history that people have tried that, it’s failed.”

COWEN: As a science fiction author, how do you view the evolution of social media? Including how it would relate to a lunar settlement. Facebook on the Moon?

WEIR: I don’t see why not.

COWEN: Harmful? Beneficial?

WEIR: Neither. Both.

COWEN: Neither? So, neutral?

WEIR: Yeah, it’d be about . . . I mean, Artemis, there’s nothing magical about it. It’s a city that’s on the Moon, but humans are still humans [laughs] and they do what they do. So whatever they do in another small town that’s fairly isolated, they do in Artemis.

COWEN: One of your favorite novellas is Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky, and there’s a new technology in that story where you enter a kind of tunnel and you can emerge at some other very distant place. It’s almost a bit like teleportation, but they don’t wipe out a copy of you. You’re still you.

WEIR: Yeah.

COWEN: If we had this in the world, what do you think is the most fundamental change it would bring?

WEIR: If we had basically teleportation?

COWEN: Something like teleportation, but it does not obliterate the individual being teleported.

WEIR: Right. Yeah . . .

COWEN: Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky.

WEIR: Something like that, but where . . . And with precision, like we could have . . . We could just go, “I wanna go to LA right now.”

COWEN: Yeah. You don’t fall into a volcano.

WEIR: Right.

COWEN: You get to appear on the corner of Santa Monica and . . .

WEIR: That would have massive, tumultuous effects because there would no longer be any such thing as borders or territory. Like, if people can teleport, then how . . . Let’s say you’ve got a country. How do you defend that when your enemies can just teleport into the middle? Ultimately, you would end up, very quickly, with a global government.

COWEN: How do you think through the equilibrium there? Could you imagine nation states become stronger? They require all individuals be tagged in some way. If you appear in a territory and you’re not tagged, the drones come; they strike you down immediately. Is it possible you’d have less mobility, because you would invest up front in this tagging technology?

WEIR: I think the first thing . . . Once again, for me, it always comes down to the tech and the details. However this tunnel system works, the first thing that countries would try to do is say, “Can I build a shield, such that you can’t make a tunnel into here?” [laughs]

COWEN: Yeah. But say you can actually make the tunnel. You may be vulnerable when you appear —

WEIR: Like that it’s unstoppable?

COWEN: There’s no way to stop the tunneling process, though you can shoot them when they get off the proverbial boat.

WEIR: Yeah, no, that’s rough. That basically means there is no such thing as borders and no way of preventing people . . .

So if this technology existed right now, we’d have suicide bombers just showing up in every American city.

COWEN: So global GDP falls, in your view?

WEIR: In the short term, for sure.

COWEN: In the long term?

WEIR: In the long term, you end up with one global government, because one entity that’s powerful enough to do it finally says, “You know what? Screw this, we’re going to control everything so that this is no longer an issue.”

COWEN: Even individual governments, as you know, they put mobility restrictions often on citizens. So if you’re in China, you live in the countryside —

WEIR: You can’t go to the city.

COWEN: You want to move to Shanghai, you can’t just appear there legally. You may appear in a black market sort of way. So, I suspect also, it would be a kind of dystopia to have Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky.

WEIR: To be fair, in Tunnel in the Sky, they weren’t anywhere near that precise.

COWEN: Yes.

WEIR: It’ll put you kind of somewhere on a planet.

[laughter]

COWEN: And that may be better, right?

[laughter]

WEIR: It was really, really . . . Oh, and also, a supernova happened somewhere in the galaxy and it completely screwed up the system, and they couldn’t retrieve the people who used it. And so they were all stranded on that planet.

COWEN: And why do you like Tunnel in the Sky so much? Why is that an interesting story for you?

WEIR: Oh, it’s a survival story. It’s people versus nature. I love that sort of stuff, as you may have noticed.

COWEN: Sure.

So something that strikes me about your work that I find very special to you: there’s an economic model behind everything and an engineering model behind everything, a model of science, and the economic and the engineering models are integrated. And there’s a lot of —

WEIR: Thanks.

COWEN: — science fiction authors that do one or the other, but you’re the guy who integrates them both. And you never say this up front, but that to me is one thing so striking about your two novels.

WEIR: Oh, well, thank you.

Yeah, well, economics is just another science. If you start to think of money as a physics property, and there’s going to be conservation of money. [laughs] And money actually acts sort of like a particle with gravity. So wealth accumulates [laughs] and it has a tendency to keep going where . . . I mean, if you start to look at it like a physics problem, a lot of stuff starts to make sense.

On things under- and overrated

COWEN: Now, in all of these interviews, there’s a segment in the middle; it’s called “Overrated versus Underrated.”

WEIR: All right.

COWEN: So I toss out a name, an idea; you’re free to pass.

WEIR: [laughs]

COWEN: You’re not required to offend anyone, but you tell me if you think it’s overrated or underrated.

WEIR: All right.

COWEN: The movie Blade Runner, director’s cut.

WEIR: Correctly rated.

COWEN: And how do you rate it?

WEIR: I love it.

COWEN: Blade Runner 2049, the new one.

WEIR: I have not seen it yet.

COWEN: OK.

WEIR: Because my girlfriend has made it clear that I will be severely punished if I watch it without her, and we haven’t had time with my book tour to go somewhere together.

COWEN: Edgar Rice Burroughs.

WEIR: Kind of underrated, because people have pretty much forgotten all his contributions to fiction. So I’ve got to give that an underrated.

COWEN: OK. Robinson Crusoe, the novel.

WEIR: Also underrated. It’s the first fictional adventure story, ever. He invented that. [laughs] And he invented —

COWEN: And your book —

WEIR: Well, and of course, The Martian is a . . . I mean, there’s a whole category of books called “Robinsonade,” and The Martian is one of them.

COWEN: So The Martian’s influenced by Daniel Defoe?

WEIR: Yeah.

COWEN: Yeah. It’s a great book, I think. One of my favorites.

WEIR: So is every adventure, really. In a way, so is every adventure novel. It was one of the first just fictional adventure stories.

COWEN: And it’s still gripping.

WEIR: It’s still good.

COWEN: Yeah.

Star Trek, the original series.

WEIR: Underrated. I love — it’s my favorite of all of them.

COWEN: What’s your favorite episode?

WEIR: Ooh. “Balance of Terror,” I think. The one where they’re fighting —

COWEN: Is that a D. C. Fontana script?

WEIR: I don’t know who wrote it.

COWEN: Yeah.

I think the D. C. Fontana ones are the best, generally.

WEIR: I liked “Balance of Terror,” and of course I loved “Mirror, Mirror.”

COWEN: Yeah. That’s one of my favorites.

WEIR: I mean, Star Trek invented the idea of an evil parallel dimension. That’s another —

COWEN: Is that original to Star Trek?

WEIR: Yeah. The idea of like your evil counterpart has a goatee, that came from “Mirror, Mirror” because Evil Spock had a goatee.

COWEN: That’s right. Yeah.

WEIR: That’s where that came from.

COWEN: And the optimistic vision in the original Star Trek, do you find that persuasive?

WEIR: Yeah, I love it. I have a very optimistic view of the future. It’s my belief that every century is better than the last. And if you don’t believe me, let’s say I pointed a gun at you and pointed you at my time machine and said, “You have to go back in time some exact number of centuries, but you get to pick.” You’re going to choose one century. You’re not going to want to go back further than that. You’re going to want to go as far forward in time as you are allowed to go.

COWEN: I don’t want to go back. But if you give me the choice to live born in 1962 as I was, or to go 400 years into the future, I think I would stick with the status quo.

WEIR: Just simply because of your comfort level?

COWEN: I know I’m surviving to a particular age with more to come, and maybe history is cyclical . . .

WEIR: I’d go straight to the 400 years in the future, because imagine you ask some guy in 1617, “You want to go 400 years in the future, or stay here?” Right. So that guy now, he has a life expectancy of maybe 50 if he’s lucky, and he’s probably going to die in the Hundred Years’ War. I mean, you’re way better off going 400 years in the future. Find me any spot in history where you’re better off 400 years earlier.

COWEN: Well, there are dark ages. You’d rather be around the time of Jesus Christ than, say, in the year 600 AD, for instance, in Western Europe.

WEIR: I’m not sure about that. By 600 AD, the Romans had stopped pillaging all of Europe, right? And so, now, nation states had solidified and it was a much more peaceful era.

COWEN: Overrated or underrated: disco music?

WEIR: Underrated. Disco will never die, my friend.

COWEN: And what in disco music do you advocate?

WEIR: All of it.

COWEN: All of it. Your favorite?

WEIR: Oh, boy. Donna Summer, maybe.

COWEN: That would be my pick, Donna Summer.

WEIR: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

COWEN: That’s great, yeah.

WEIR: Yeah. I am a fan of disco. I admit it.

COWEN: What’s the main way in which Moriarty differs from Sherlock Holmes?

WEIR: He’s a little bit older, and he does not let pesky things like a code of ethics or honor get in his way.

COWEN: How ethical is Holmes, in your view? Because it seems in most of these stories, he violates the rule of law, he runs around with a pistol. Very often, he doesn’t catch the criminal; in some stories, but that’s rare. He often just figures out a mystery. He is at odds with the police. A Sherlock Holmes today —

WEIR: Sometimes.

COWEN: — would we consider him a terrorist, a freedom fighter, a superhero?

[laughter]

WEIR: We’d consider him a police procedural detective.

I mean it’s been so ripped off by so many people. Basically, the way most contemporary writers like to write new Sherlock Holmes stories, like Steven Moffat writes Sherlock, is sort of like a sociopath with a heart of gold [laughs].

On being pro-technology and pro-science

COWEN: Here’s another question from a reader: quote, “Peter Thiel remarks often how modern science fiction . . . depicts science and technological progress often as dangerous or bad,” like in the movie The Terminator or Hunger Games. “This is a departure from writers like Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke,” who are mostly very pro-technology, pro-science, optimistic vision. “What’s responsible for this cultural shift?”

WEIR: I don’t know. Interests in fiction and what people are buying goes up and down and changes over time. I think lately YA fiction, young adult science fiction, has all been basically the same story told about 20 different times.

COWEN: Correct, and dystopic.

WEIR: Yeah, a dystopian future with a semi-fascist government and plucky young upstarts fighting against it. And that’s an interesting story, but I think it’s been done to death. Just like zombies were a little overdone a few years ago as well. There is sort of a technophobia out there, and I don’t buy into it. I feel like technology generally makes things better.

It’s also why I really don’t like the show Black Mirror, because it’s pretty much all about how technology is awful and will ruin the universe.

COWEN: And control. It’s all about control, technology. But you being controlled, not you controlling the natural world.

“I think lately YA fiction, young adult science fiction, has all been basically the same story told about 20 different times. A dystopian future with a semi-fascist government and plucky young upstarts fighting against it. And that’s an interesting story, but I think it’s been done to death. Just like zombies were a little overdone a few years ago as well. There is sort of a technophobia out there, and I don’t buy into it. I feel like technology generally makes things better.”

COWEN: But what is it, you think, in your individual biography that accounts for your greater loyalty to what is now the fairly old Asimov-Heinlein-Clarke tradition, when the other writers coming up, they’re mixed attitudes? But you’re one of the most optimistic, most pro-science — this integration of economics and engineering. What is it in you that has produced that?

WEIR: I don’t know. Maybe I’m just an optimist.

COWEN: Just an optimist.

WEIR: Maybe it’s as simple as that.

COWEN: From birth?

WEIR: Maybe. I don’t know.

But I feel like I’ve got about 50 centuries of human history to back up my point of view, that we just generally make things better. I mean, if you go back to the year 1000, I’m sure there are people who are mad that you invented the plow, but it turned out to be good.

On ethics, fictional and otherwise

COWEN: Now, Isaac Asimov, as you know, he came up with his Three Laws of Robotics. No harm, obey, self-preservation, in a strictly hierarchical order. Those date from the 1940s. That’s now a long time ago. We’ve seen a lot more from technology, and, in fact, in robotics. Do you think that you, Andy Weir, today in 2017, could improve on Asimov’s Three Laws?

WEIR: You mean like if I was going to write —

COWEN: You get to write some number of laws to govern robots.

WEIR: To govern robots?

COWEN: You don’t get three million, but you can have more than three. Could you improve on Asimov’s laws?

WEIR: I’ve got to say yes. Because I was a computer programmer for 25 years, so I’m actually pretty good at that stuff.

One thing that those three laws hid, and it’s OK because science fiction is science fiction, but it requires the robot to make moral and ethical decisions, and make . . . What constitutes allowing a human to come to harm? And a lot of Asimov’s stories explore that. But in order for a robot to have those ethical dilemmas and considerations, there’s a lot of programing that has to be done under the hood.

COWEN: And do you have a nomination for how you would improve on the Three Laws, just one bit?

WEIR: You would need a very, very detailed description of what constitutes harming a human. What constitutes allowing a human to come to harm. What constitutes obeying a human, and what constitutes self-preservation.

COWEN: How good do you think the ethical programs embodied in autonomous vehicles will be? And this is coming pretty soon, right?

WEIR: Well, yeah, this is a real question that we have to ask. There’s nothing like, your car is not going to conspire against you. It’s just a program that it’s running, right?

COWEN: Right.

WEIR: Now the question is, do you want to buy a car that under certain rare circumstances would choose to sacrifice you for some reason? Like, it concludes that it’s like, “Oh, that’s a bus . . . Due to events beyond anybody’s control, I’m about to crash. I can either hit that bus and my passenger will be OK, or I can go off that cliff and everyone on the bus will be OK and my passenger will be dead.” If you’re driving the car, no one blames you for trying to preserve your own life. No one holds you at fault for choosing your own life over anything else in a snap decision.

COWEN: Right.

WEIR: But if it’s something that can be coldly calculated in advance and your car is making the decision, then people will start saying, “No, no, no, cars should do this, that, and the other thing.” And I’d be like, “I’m not sure I want a car that doesn’t prioritize me.” Then you start to get into the ethics of people hacking their cars, so that they’re like, “No, no, no, I’ve uploaded this patch that makes my car pick me.” [laughs]

COWEN: So you go on Match.com and part of the profile request is to enter, in certified fashion, what kind of program you’ve chosen for your car. Right?

WEIR: For your car. [laughs] Could be. No, actually . . .

COWEN: What does the equilibrium look like? Do we still all go selfish?

WEIR: Well, first off, yes. But second off, that would certainly be against the law. So it would not be something you would broadcast.

COWEN: Mercedes sells altruistic cars and they’re all pink. The selfish cars are black.

WEIR: The selfish cars would be outlawed, is what I’m saying. This would be a policy issue, not a consumer choice issue.

COWEN: And you think it will be a policy issue?

WEIR: Yeah, I’m sure. Once you have self-driving cars, there’s going to be all sorts of laws about like, oh, there’s a new law that says, “In this situation, a self-driving car must do this thing.” Just as we have traffic laws now.

COWEN: I believe they just passed regulations in Germany forbidding self-driving cars from assigning higher values to younger lives than older lives.

WEIR: OK.

COWEN: Are you for that or against it?

WEIR: It’s a big morass. It’s just this big brand-new ethical mess that is going to be politics, basically. It’s going to be politics. This is not a technology issue. This is humans making rules about what humans do with technology.

On Weir’s earlier works

COWEN: Let me ask you a few questions about some of your very early fiction, which you originally wrote online. You have a story called “The Egg,” one of your most famous works. If the world was such where all the other people we dealt with, we felt were in some way reincarnations of ourselves, how much nicer do you think we would be to them? Or over time, might it be not that much at all?

WEIR: Well, there’s two schools of thought on that, and I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on “The Egg.” One thing is you’d be like, “Whoa, this guy I’m talking to, that’s me. I’m going to experience this from his point of view or maybe I already have. I should be nice, we should all be nice; we should all cooperate.” Another school of thought is that people would be like, “Oh, that tribe of people over there, they’re less enlightened than our tribe. They’re all earlier versions of the one soul and we’re later versions. We know what’s best, and that’s why it’s OK for us to kill them because they’re just earlier versions of us. So killing them is no different than changing your mind and becoming more enlightened.” So any afterlife philosophy can either be turned into “we should be nice to each other” or “we should kill everyone.”

COWEN: And what’s your prediction for which is the equilibrium?

WEIR: That’s a tough call. I don’t know.

COWEN: We do have —

WEIR: If everybody on Earth firmly believed in “The Egg,” I think the argument would quickly become who are the older souls.

COWEN: If we’re thinking about questions of cultural assimilation, would a discovered mermaid or merman have an easier time blending into the rest of society and being accepted? And you’ve written on this, too, of course.

WEIR: You’re talking about . . . You want me to choose between mermaid or merman?

COWEN: Merman. Which would have an easier time —

WEIR: Which of those two would have an easier time?

COWEN: Being accepted into modern American society?

WEIR: That is a really random question. [laughs] I guess a mermaid would have a slightly easier time because more people understand the concept of a mermaid than a merman. People understand, well, there must be a male of the species, but everybody knows what mermaids are.

COWEN: And you think more men would be willing to date a mermaid than women would be willing to date a merman?

WEIR: Well, I’d have to ask about the biology of the mermaid.

COWEN: Of course.

[laughter]

WEIR: That would be a factor, I’m sure.

COWEN: If you had the power to go anywhere without being tossed out, again a premise from one of your stories, where would you actually choose to go?

WEIR: Oh. Oh, that’d be awesome. I’d just go into major sporting events; I’d just walk in and go . . . watch the Super Bowl from the sidelines and go to the World Series. That’d be lots of stuff. I would of course —

COWEN: But you can go to these now, right? This is —

WEIR: Yeah, well, no, I don’t have that kind of access, right? And other things is like, anytime I’d want to travel, I’d just . . . just go right up into some unoccupied first-class seat in a plane. [laughs] It’s like I might —

And also, I would almost certainly use it for evil at various times; I’m like, “I need some money; I’m going to walk into that bank.”

COWEN: Is there any place you would go that you cannot currently go right now? Like right now, you more or less can’t go to North Korea.

WEIR: Right.

COWEN: Would you go there?

WEIR: No, I’m not that interested in that. There’s probably a bunch of places I would go simply because other people aren’t allowed to go. Like I’d just wander around Buckingham Palace, just because I can now.

COWEN: Right.

[laughter]

WEIR: It would be neat. I’m like, “Oh, so this is the secret, deep innermost chamber of the Pentagon, huh? Neat.” With no agenda other than just to see it.

On Weir himself

COWEN: Let me ask you a few questions about you. Again, you always have the freedom to pass. But in one of your interviews you say that you often read dialogue out loud to yourself.

WEIR: I do.

COWEN: Why do you do that? What function does it serve?

WEIR: To make sure the conversation flows and makes sense, I need to hear it, audibly. I need to hear it with my ears, not just see it with my eyes, in order to make sure that the sentences flow. It’s just kind of how I think.

COWEN: And do you put on different voices for different characters, or it all sounds like Andy Weir?

WEIR: I do end up with . . . Well, the affect that the characters would be putting in, like if they’re mad and the other one’s like, “Calm down.” I’ll do a little bit of voice acting. But yeah, you would really think that I was crazy if you just watched me write for a while.

COWEN: Now, The Martian was written online first, and, in a way, in serial form, like the great 19th century novelists.

WEIR: Yeah.

COWEN: A bit at a time and you would spoon it out to readers and get feedback. And Artemis, it seems to me, wasn’t. The methods of writing, how do you feel it’s shaped the final output in each case? How would you compare those two?

WEIR: Well, since The Martian was a serial, I was much more locked into each chapter after it was written. So I’d write a chapter and post it online. Now, I didn’t consider those chapters to be set in stone, and I would go back and make minor corrections and changes, and I told the readers that in advance. I’m like, “Hey, if I need to go back a few chapters and change something, I’m going to do that.” But still, I had a strong impetus to consider anything that’s been released as done, inviolate. Right. And also, it gave me a really strong desire to have each chapter end with kind of a cliffhanger.

In Artemis, I didn’t feel the need to do that. And that was actually good, because in Artemis I had cases where . . . It’s a much more complicated plot, with a whole lot more moving parts. And so I needed to frequently go back and just make substantial changes to earlier chapters, while I’m working on chapter seven and I realize, “Oh, crap, I need to completely rewrite chapter three now, because I came up with this much cooler thing to happen and so I need to start setting up for it back here.” And that was good because by having the entire book be presented as a fait accompli, I didn’t have to . . . I wasn’t locked into the earlier chapters.

COWEN: And what method will you use for your next book?

WEIR: The same as Artemis. I like the traditional publishing route.

COWEN: One of the things to me that’s striking about your work, is just how good you are at synthesizing what you learn and then improving on it in a continuous sort of way.

WEIR: I hope so. Thank you.

COWEN: It’s a kind of engineering approach, but applied to writing and the knowledge you need behind writing. If I ask you the question I ask many of our guests, the Andy Weir production function — you started from not being a professional writer, you wrote online, you were paid zero.

WEIR: Yes. [laughs]

COWEN: Now, you’re famous, you receive huge sums of money, your books are made into movies.

WEIR: Yeah, it’s awesome. I recommend it.

COWEN: How would you describe the Andy Weir production function, so that we have insight into your comparative advantage that helped you become successful?

WEIR: I don’t know. I’m sure luck played a large part of it.

I think part of it is that I happened upon a combination of things that worked well together, without doing the proper experimentation to find it in advance. So I said, “OK, I’m going to make a smart-ass main character, and I’m going to make a scientifically accurate story.” Well, it turns out those two dovetailed together very, very well, because being a funny smart-ass enabled me to dump enormous amounts of exposition on the reader, that ordinarily would have been painful to slog through. And so I didn’t realize how well those two things were going to go together.

And I also didn’t realize how much people would end up rooting for this poor guy who’s stranded on Mars. I was doing it as sort of a self-insertion, what would I do if I were on Mars, and other people read it as, like, “the world must help him.”

And so some of it, unfortunately, is just I stumbled into a formula that worked. And I also stumbled into a niche that I didn’t realize existed, which is the so-called hard sci-fi, the scientifically accurate science fiction. I like reading that. And you go back a bit, you get to . . . Like, I liked reading Niven growing up, and he would actually do all the math. I mean, he was a little iffy on light speed travel and he really didn’t like to have it in his books, but you do something like the Ringworld, all of that works. It all . . .

Like, there’s no like physics violations or anything in Ringworld, except for the faster-than-light travel that you take to get there. And so I really enjoyed that as a kid and so that’s kind of what I wrote as an adult, and nobody else is really doing that. And I kind of wish they would.

On the one hand, it’s nice to have that niche to myself and all the readers who are interested in that are just mine. But on the other hand, I wish there was another writer doing that so that I could read it. [laughs]

COWEN: Your college experience: you dropped out, I believe, in your fourth year.

WEIR: Yeah.

COWEN: Why didn’t you drop out sooner?

WEIR: Because I hadn’t run out of money yet.

[laughter]

WEIR: It was my intention to get a computer science degree, but then I ran out of money before finishing college and I had to enter the workforce. And at that time, it was the mid-’90s and the tech bubble was still inflating, and there was such a huge demand for engineers. I could make pretty good money as an entry-level programmer. So my choice was either get paid what, for me at the time, was a pretty good salary, or go deeply into debt to continue college. I chose the money.

COWEN: Let’s say —

WEIR: Economics.

COWEN: Economics.

WEIR: It’s all about economics.

COWEN: What if there were two immortal people, let’s say it’s the two of us, placed on opposite sides of the Earth, an Earth-like planet, and we can wander freely with no constraints but just foot speed. How long does it take us to find each other?

WEIR: Can we collude in advance in any way?

COWEN: No, we cannot.

WEIR: OK.

COWEN: But we know we’re trying to find each other.

WEIR: We know we’re trying to find each other. Well, we should both — but can we have a — are we both rational actors and we —

COWEN: We’re as rational as you and I are; take that as you wish.

WEIR: So, no?

[laughter]

COWEN: No.

WEIR: I think the best thing to do would be for both of us to pick an arbitrary great circle to walk, around the planet, and leave markings along the way denoting what direction you’re walking. So I would arbitrarily pick a direction to go and I would just go that direction with the intention of circumnavigating the entire globe, and I would walk at maybe half what is a comfortable speed for me. And you would do the same thing. Now, somewhere, our two — in fact, in two points — our great circles will intersect.

COWEN: Right.

WEIR: And when one of us reaches the other one’s, then they start following the markers at full speed, and then you get the guy. Right?

COWEN: And what’s your best guess as to how long that would take?

WEIR: Well, if you pick two points, I’m guessing one of us would have to walk probably about a quarter of the way around the planet before we found the other one’s great circle. And then you’d have to walk again. So in terms of circumnavigation times, it would take you 2x to get all the way around the planet, because my initial plan was you’d walk half-speed. So I’m guessing it would be a quarter of that, so one-half x to get to your great circle, and then a quarter x to find you along your great circle, on average, I’m guessing. So one-half plus a quarter, so .75x. So three-quarters of the time that it would take to circumnavigate the planet.

COWEN: OK, great answer.

WEIR: That’s my guess.

On Artemis

COWEN: The lead character in Artemis, I believe she’s 26 years old, her name is Jazz, she’s a woman, and she’s from Saudi Arabia. Why that choice?

WEIR: When I originally conceived . . . Well, so I designed the whole city and all the science and economics behind it before I came up with any characters or the story.

COWEN: Right.

WEIR: And so I had the city in place, and I’m like, “Now, I’m going to make characters and a story.” So I came up with a story and I needed, for this first rev of the story, I needed kind of a smuggler type, a shady person, but not a bad person. And so this is how Jazz got created. I was like, “Well, it’s a very international town; I’m going to pick a country at random that I haven’t used yet: Saudi Arabia. OK, and I’ll make her a woman.” Done. And she was only going to be in like two or three scenes. But that story, ultimately, for unrelated reasons, didn’t work out. It wasn’t very good. I didn’t like the plot; I didn’t like the characters. So I set that aside and I came up with a new story, taking elements I liked from the first chunk, characters and plot elements that I liked from the first draft, and put it together.

WEIR: In the second one, Jazz was a little more prevalent but still very much a secondary character. She wasn’t the main character, the lead character, at all. And then that story didn’t work, but I was like, “This character Jazz is pretty interesting, and the idea of writing a story about a kind of a little of a rogue might work.” So that’s when I moved into what is now Artemis, what Artemis became, which is a story all about Jazz. And by that time, she was so cemented in my mind as being a Saudi woman that my imagination would have rebelled if I had tried to change her into being something I’m more familiar with, like a guy or whatever.

COWEN: And some of the bad guys, they’re a Brazilian crime syndicate, right?

WEIR: Uh-huh.

COWEN: O Palacio. Where did you get that idea from?

WEIR: I needed an organized crime syndicate for the story, and I wanted to just . . . I was like, “OK, I don’t want to go with La Cosa Nostra or the Russian mob or anything.” I wanted to invent something new. And so I said, “Well, I want a big, fairly significant country with a large economy,” are the best places to get good, solid crime syndicates. [laughs] We have awesome big old mafias here in the US and Japan or Russia. You don’t get a lot of organized crime in small economies. So I picked Brazil because it’s like a country that you don’t often hear about. And I’m sure, and I’m certain, they have lots of organized crime there, just like every other major country, but it’s not a stereotypical organized crime source in fiction.

COWEN: And if there’s a Brazilian crime syndicate killing people, trying to kill people, on Artemis, does that mean it’s poorly governed by the Kenya Space Corporation, in your model?

WEIR: Well, the rule of law is iffy in Artemis, and that’s clear through the whole novel. It’s difficult for them to enforce law, and this was actually kind of a central theme, is they’re like, “Oh crap, we really . . . We are on the verge of basically being owned by this syndicate.”

COWEN: But if you think about the country of Iceland, Iceland is extremely safe. You know in Iceland if you kill someone, you can’t escape, right? It’s an island, not many roads, not many people — people know each other. It’s not the only reason why crime in Iceland is low, but a big reason. Why isn’t Artemis more like Iceland? That there’s so little anonymity, so few possibilities for escape, that the crime rate is either zero, or it’s crimes the Kenya Space Corporation wants to have happening?

WEIR: Right. Well, the scenario that you’re describing as a hypothetical is true in the book. Artemis has very little crime. And the crimes that are happening are fairly minor, in the grand scheme of things. There aren’t, like, unsolved murders in Artemis. And when there is a major crime, it’s always an outsider who’s done it, because, just as you say, everybody knows each other.

COWEN: Will there be a movie of Artemis?

WEIR: Well, 20th Century Fox has bought the film rights and they’ve attached the directing duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller to the project, and those two are now in the process of choosing a screenplay writer to write the adaptation. But a whole bunch of stuff needs to go right for a movie to get green-lighted. So at this point, it’s just — it’s very early days and just cross your fingers.

COWEN: And to close, could you just give us some sense of your vision for the future of your own career, what you would like to write, what else you would like to accomplish, how you think about the path that you’re on?

WEIR: Love the path that I’m on. I want to keep writing books. I have more ideas for books than I have remaining lifespan to write them. So I’m set on that front.

And in the short term, I would like to write more books that take place in Artemis. I would like Artemis to be a general setting for lots of different stories. Not necessarily direct serials. Like the next book that I have in mind, Jazz is not the main character. It’s a completely different protagonist.

COWEN: Andy Weir, thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.

WEIR: Thank you for having me.

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