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

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Mercatus Center
Dec 20, 2017 · 44 min read
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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?

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.

On Elon Musk and private space travel

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

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.

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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.

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.

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?

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.”

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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?”

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?

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?

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?

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.

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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?

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages…

Mercatus Center

Written by

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

Mercatus Center

Written by

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

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