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Book Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

I have to start this book review with a confession: I almost missed a typo in the title. I wrote “Andy Weird” instead of “Andy Weir,” and it never even crossed my mind that “Weird” was wrong.

Artemis by Andy Weir had a lot of expectations to live up to. Weir’s first book, The Martian, was something of a sensation. It was so popular, in fact, that they made a movie based on the book that was actually pretty great. I was a huge fan of both the book and the movie, so I was looking forward to reading Artemis. So much so, in fact, that I took a trip with my fiancee to New York City to attend the official book launch, which you can read about here.

Like always, be prepared for spoilers in my review. If you don’t like spoilers, I don’t recommend reading any further.

The moon’s a mean old bitch.

Artemis is a book about a city on the moon, named Artemis, designed in painstaking detail by Weir to be as realistic as possible. One has to admire the world-building of this book, with details ranging from the way that they deal with the moon’s regolith to the way the economy works in the city. Any aspiring author would do well to read this book for the world building alone. Weir provides a masterclass in thinking about all of the small, day-to-day issues that most people wouldn’t imagine, and he puts them into the narrative with such breathtaking ease that you might be tempted to think that he didn’t work that hard at it at all.

The first few pages of the book have detailed maps of the lunar surface where the city exists, complete with the train lines that take people to the Apollo 11 landing site, the reactors, and the smelting plant. I’ve always appreciated these kinds of maps in science fiction stories. Typically, they’re present in epic high fantasy, like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. When you’re writing a book in which the setting itself is a character in the story, maps help bring the story to life, so it’s greatly appreciated and this earns the book a bunch of points.

I think the book suffers from a plot that seems tacked-on, in some instances. The conclusion and resolution aren’t entirely believable, and I have issues with the way the economy works, or could even transition at the conclusion of the story. I suppose that this is a hazard when you design the setting and build the world, and then add a plot to it later. There’s one specific place where there is a conflict between characters that comes up at a really odd time and feels extremely forced onto the story. The book is also on the short side, coming in at only 305 pages. I don’t usually say this, but given the subject of the book, as well as the intricate detail needed to really make it believable, a hundred or so more pages could have fleshed out a lot of the plot and the characters, and improved the overall quality of the book.

Another small issue that I have is Weir’s use of the interrobang. I’ve talked about this before, in my review of Dan Brown’s Inferno, but I think it bears repeating here: if you use the interrobang, use it once and no more. This is a personal issue, but I think when an author overuses the interrobang (and Weir uses it three times that I can remember, twice on the same page), it feels like the author is getting lazy. I think I would put this under a “show, don’t tell” problem in the writing.

Perhaps the biggest issue was the fact that, despite the fact that it is a really good book on the whole, some of it just seems so cliche. It’s like a hard-boiled detective noir that’s drowning in hard-boiled detective noir cliches, filled with cigar smoke and long legs and dames in red dresses and whiskey. At one point the administrator of Artemis takes out a gun (which are strictly forbidden for obvious KABOOMY reasons) and gets tricked into revealing something by that main character, Jasmine Bashara. To some extent these cliches are unavoidable because the book reads very much like a Western on the Moon. Hey–that should be a genre on its own.

The Gizmos did whatever magic shit computers do to identify each other and verify.

There is a golden rule of science fiction: don’t explain. There are hard science fiction stories where the science and technology are the raison d’etre of the story, but in most cases, people don’t care about a thorough and plausible explanation of technology in the narrative. We don’t read stories for that reason, and if they wanted to know about that, they could read a technical manual or journal.

Weir, thankfully, follows this rule closely. He uses a combination of narrative exposition and character perspective to fill in the blanks about technology, culture, and science. And that’s really the only knowledge that the reader needs to get through the story. I tend to be a picky reader, but I am perfectly fine with that, and I’ll let the author get away with not knowing how everything works as long as it is internally consistent and the plot and characters are good.

Artemis strikes a good balance between the hard sciences that explain how the city functions and the people live in it and the plot. This is sort of Weir’s specialty, though, and it’s something that’s not easy to pull off. He did it with The Martian, and he does it with Artemis. Science drives the plot and sets the stage for the book, but it isn’t in the way of the story.

It’s the greatest little city in the worlds.

The book is a straightforward, linear narrative. The backstory is filled in with pen-pal letters between Jazz Bashara, the main character, and Kelvin, a boy (and later, man) on Earth in Kenya, who works for the Kenyan Space Corporation. Artemis, we learn, is owned by a company based in Kenya for reasons that Weir explains in the book (and it isn’t a stretch to accept it). This pen-pal method is a good way to fill in Jazz’s backstory, and as the narrative goes we learn more about her current predicament based on the things in the past that got her to where she is.

We learn, for instance, that in the recent past that Jazz was homeless and running from Artemis’ resident Sheriff, Rudy (who was, in the past, a Canadian Mountie). Through this we further learn that it is illegal to be homeless in Artemis, and if caught she would be deported to Saudi Arabia, a place of which she has no knowledge. Worse, by kicking her out of the only home she has ever known (a pretty bad punishment in and of itself for merely being homeless), she’d suffer crueler punishments because of the side-effects of moving from the low-gravity environment of the moon to the high-gravity environment of Earth. Her body is just not suited for life on Earth without serious medical issues. If you think that this system is crazy and unjust, believe me, you’re not alone.

The problem is that Artemis feels too much like a lawless town from the “Old West.” Partly this is by design, as Weir said that he based a lot of it on Caribbean resort towns. But I can’t help but think that there’s something extraordinarily nefarious about this whole enterprise. For instance, there are no age-of-consent laws on Artemis, and justice is usually distributed by way of angry mob. First, I have major issues with this because consent, and the ability to give it or to withhold it, is one of the foundational pillars of Western Law. I don’t know how Artemis could survive long without something as basic as age-of-consent laws–and we get a taste of the problems that can cause because of Jazz’s experience with an ex-boyfriend who turns out to be a pedophile (which Weir never explicitly says but which is made rather obvious).

Second, justice by mob is extremely primitive. For the entirety of Artemis, a city of 2,000 people, the only legitimate lawman as Rudy. It’s just not possible for him to properly police the entire city. And when he does, his version of justice tends to be delivered by the force of his knuckles. It’s obvious that one of the greatest foundational problems with Artemis is smuggling, and it turns out that Jazz has that particular market cornered. She smuggles flammable things into the city, which, quite obviously, is really dumb. But money is money for a person who was homeless once and at risk of being kicked of the damn moon.

Complicating matters is the fact that an organized crime syndicate is not only present in the city, but is involved in some of its more critical functions. Why? Money laundering. When I came to understand the full extent of the corruption required for them to be tolerated, and then later removed, the only note I took was “we’ve been spending most our lives living in a libertarian’s paradise.” The administrator is in on it, and what it comes down to is the compromises that must be made that comes back to bite you in the ass. Artemis is on the verge of bankruptcy (well, duh) and to save it they need to do some shady shit.

Why would a criminal organization use Artemis to launder money? It’s because the unit of currency on the moon, commonly called the slug, isn’t very highly regulated. It’s not really a currency–it’s a prepaid unit for transferring cargo from Earth to the moon, and it’s useful for trade. KSC track the balance, and acts as a bank, and transaction occur pretty much without any serious oversight. So moving slugs around and then selling them for real money is no real problem.

So are these flaws with the story? No, I think they’re partly what make the story interesting and worth reading. I was quick to grow frustrated at the way that Artemis was created and functioned, but it wasn’t because it was badly written or poorly conceived. It was because it was just too realistic. When later we see Artemis transitioning from its current incarnation of lawless capitalism to one of taxed property, ownership, and laws it feels real, organic, and natural (even if I don’t believe it would happen without a lot of civil strife and rioting). So for someone like me, who is knowledgeable about politics, policy, and philosophy, a lot of the stuff in this book made me angry. But it made me angry because it was believable. Several aspects of Artemis were unsafe, and as you’ll learn after you read it, it was a catastrophe waiting to happen. In short, it was human. And humanity often makes one frustrated and angry.

Physics dictates it tastes like shit.

One of the real strengths of the book is how it weaves exposition and detail into the story as if it were natural conversation or narration. The above quote pertains to Jasmine explaining the process of creating warm drinks, like tea or coffee, on Artemis. Through her very strong voice, she explains coffee, oxygen, pressure, boiling points, and the process of making coffee in a low pressure environment. Because the air pressure in Artemis is about 20% of Earth’s pressure, the boiling point in Artemis is 61 degrees Celsius. That’s as hot as drinks can be on Artemis, so they seem cold to most people.

This is the pattern that follows most, if not all, of the technical and scientific explanations in the book. For instance, Jasmine talks about gunk, the foodstuff most commonly consumed on the mood and made of flavored algae grown in vats in her characteristic smart ass voice. She also managed to make process of smelting to get aluminum and oxygen from the resources on the moon interesting.

Crashing your pressure vessel into things is bad. It can lead to unscheduled dying.

This book wouldn’t be what it is without the distinct voice of the main character, Jasmine Bashara, or Jazz. It’s not accurate to say that she’s merely the Arabic, female Mark Watney; she’s more than that because Watney was concerned with saving himself, whereas transitions from saving herself to saving Artemis. I think it’s also worth giving Weir credit for making Jazz Arabic, and her father Muslim. This leads to some interesting interactions between her father and herself, as well as certain explorations of the needs of her father’s religious beliefs while not on Earth. More than that, it was just nice to see an Arabic woman with a Muslim father cast as heroes in a story for once.

I do have a few criticisms of Jazz, and they’re relatively minor compared to the many great things about her character (which I hope you’ll find out for yourself when you read the book). The first is that, while I understand Jazz to be a rogue with a heart of gold, she seems to be hypersexualized. It’s hard to put my finger exactly on why I feel this way, and it’s even more difficult to describe what, exactly, my problem is with this aspect of her character. However, I think that it creates some awkward moments in the book that I’m not sure add to the experience in a positive way. On the other hand, the hangup could be mine and mine alone, and I accept that. The book is very intimate because it rings so true with the voice of the main character. We get a very close and intimate view of her mind and the things that she thinks. Sex is naturally a part of that experience.

The second criticism that I have is that there are a few times where Jazz seems to be a bit of a Mary Sue. There’s a part where she learned some very advanced and complicated electronics in an evening, and I just do not find that believable. We’re to understand that she’s an exceptionally smart and talented individual, which is fine. But I think that a lot of the things that she does are things that she doesn’t seem to have any relevant experience with. There are specific places where her talent and ability make a lot of sense, such as the scenes in which she welds–there’s a history there with her father. But that electronics thing seems to come out of nowhere and, without it, some of the later events couldn’t really happen.

How dare you call me lazy? I’d come up with a scathing retort, but meh, I’m just not motivated.

In the final analysis, Artemis is a great book with some minor flaws. Those flaws do not detract from the experience of reading and enjoying the book. It is not, however, The Martian. It’s an entirely different beast, and any comparison with his former work isn’t really fair. It’s not as good as The Martian, but I think it was trying to do something different and I think it largely succeeded. The Martian will be recognized as a classic of science fiction, and rightly so. Artemis may not be, but it is a great novel, with great characters, and amazing world building. It definitely deserves a place in the modern canon of science fiction greats.

With that in mind, I rate the book 4 out of 5 stars, and recommend it to fans of The Martian, fans of science fiction, and fans of caper stories. A general audience will also enjoy this book.

 

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  1. December 5, 2017 at 1:52 AM

    Hello! Thanks for the thorough review! And I also learn a new word – interrobang! Never was a fan of it myself, either, and prefer to use it exactly zero times in a story.

    • December 5, 2017 at 1:20 PM

      Thank you for the comment! As for the interrobang, ideally I’d like to never see it used. But I’ll let writers get away with it once without comment. Dan Brown sets the standard in overuse of the interrobang, though, and I made fun of him for that.

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