Recently, I compared Earnest Cline’s Ready Player One to his follow-up novel Armada (albeit in reverse order). Having a smash hit debut novel can be a bit daunting for authors when they’re suddenly faced with having to produce something new. So in keeping with the science fiction mixed with humor vein, we’ll be looking at Andy Weir’s latest novel, Artemis.
I reviewed The Martian a couple of years ago, and loved both it and the film adaptation. But when people wondered about his next novel, many questioned whether he possibly find that magic formula again. Obviously, he couldn’t just strand someone near Jupiter and call it Martian 2: Europa Boogaloo. The appeal of his debut novel came not only from the humor and the relatable survival situation, but the believability of the scenario. The real science being used made The Martian feel real. In some ways, it made us look to the stars again without the need for warp drives.
Weir’s solution was twofold. In keeping it real, he chose an even more likely place for a future human presence, the Moon circa 2080. Artemis is the first city on the moon (with just over two thousand residents) and is a popular destination for tourists (for the rich, or for those saving up for a once in a lifetime experience). As for the plot, rather than a survival story, this is essentially a heist novel.
The novel follows Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara, a porter and part-time smuggler in the city. Though she normally limits her business to small and harmless activities (smuggling cigars and the like) she’s also gathered a reputation over the years. A wealthy businessman, Trond Landvik, recruits her for a job that could make her one million slugs (their form of currency), enough to pay off an old debt and start a new life…
As with The Martian, Weir writes using a first-person perspective, though this time exclusively. We never see events from anyone else’s perspective. Another difference is his approach to the characters. In his first novel, very little is known about Watney’s personal background. It’s all focused on the situation and perils of the present.
Jazz’s past, on the other hand, we see more in-depth, largely through a series of letters she writes to a pen pal in Kenya (which eventually ties in with the main plot). She is of Arabic descent, and her father is a practicing Muslim (she is anything but). Jazz does not see herself as a citizen of Earth who happens to live on the moon. She’s Artemian through and through. In fact, since she’s lived most her life on the moon’s low gravity (one-sixth of Earth’s), she couldn’t really go back if she wanted to. Not easily, anyway.
The description of life on Artemis is just as interesting as the ever-evolving heist story, and I found myself noticing a strange comparison. Their world is not unlike Ahnk-Morpork in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. The head of the colony, Fidelis Ngugi, the woman who not only established Artemis, but managed to turn Kenya into a thriving space powerhouse, is much like the Patrician, Lord Vetinari. Meanwhile, the head of security, former RCMP officer Dale Shapiro, is a mixture of Commander Vimes and Captain Carrot. The two butt heads in similar ways as well, as their views on law and order vs. economic growth and pragmatism are often at odds. Jazz herself could even be compared to Moist von Lipwig.
The strength of the novel doesn’t come from the structure of the adventure itself. Since it’s essentially a heist novel, you know how things will play out. The plan, the execution, the complications, coping with the complications, getting caught, and one last job to get out of that final mess. It’s seeing those things play out in a scenario that is cleanly and simply explained, yet scientifically accurate, that makes it engaging. You could call Andy Weir a more lighthearted Michael Crichton.
One of Weir’s other strengths is not to browbeat you with math or “tell me professor” moments. There’s enough there that those in the know or with an interest in such things will enjoy what’s included, but if you don’t like technical details, it never feels like you’re doing homework. It’s all part of the story. Again, one could compare this to the Discworld and how those novels manage to incorporate so much world building without actually bogging the reader down with world building. It takes a certain talent to pull that off, and Weir has it.
Overall, Artemis succeeds where Armada does not as a follow-up-to-instant-success novel. So my only question after this is pretty much the same as after The Martian. Where does he go next?
Andy Weir talk to Neil Degrass Tyson!
Originally Published in KODT #254