Following the extraordinary success of The Martian, Artemis is Andy Weir’s next big test as a writer. The Martian took a far from normal path to publication. Workshopped online by readers and self-published, it eventually found a traditional publisher, becoming a successful movie.
Let’s face it: while Weir’s success is the thing most writers crave, hitting it big on the first book makes for high stakes on the second. Who wants that kind of pressure?
Like The Martian, Artemis takes place off world, but on a lunar colony—the book’s namesake. Artemis is a five-domed city, whose commodities are mining and tourism. Like Earth, life on the moon has it’s social divisions and struggles for those at the bottom. Artemis’s main protagonist, Jasmine Bashara—Jazz, for short—is a likable porter who engages in some mildly unethical smuggling to pay off some debts.
Her plan of becoming a tour guide, a far more lucrative job on the moon, is crushed by the malfunction of her suit during a test. And with the end of that chance, she begins re-thinking through her options.
As it turns out, a wealthy regular client has huge business plans, needs some dirty work done, and hires Jazz for the perfect crime. From there, as you might expect, things cascade wildly out of control, Jazz ends up in the middle of a conspiracy, has to improvise, and Weir “sciences the shit” out of the story. (When you’re done, you’ll know how to weld on the moon.)
In Artemis, we get a detailed look at the engineering behind a lunar colony and working in low gravity, which Weir brings to life largely through Jazz’s internal monologue. As in The Martian, Weir shines in this arena.
Not to put a fine point on the technical details—but as coffee is basically my religion, something did stand out to me.
We’re told that “Jin sipped his coffee and made a face. Earthers hate our coffee. Physics dictates that it tastes like shit.”
“Earth’s air is 20 percent oxygen,” Jazz tells us, while “Artemis’s air is pure oxygen at 20 percent Earth’s pressure.” This reduces the hull’s pressure, but means that “water boils at 61 degrees Celsius” (141.8 ℉), meaning coffee or tea is never hot enough.
So wouldn’t cold brew just become the coffee of choice for a lunar society? Wouldn’t this avoid the need for high temps and the inevitable bad taste?
But I digress.
There is plenty to like in Artemis (if not the coffee), including no shortage of action and comic relief. Jazz is crude, but witty. But given she is our primary voice for the book, this limits Weir’s prose—a fact he seems to call out when Jazz describes Artemis:
“The city shined in the sunlight like a bunch of metallic boobs. What? I’m not a poet. They look like boobs.”
In many ways, Weir bravely attempts to break new ground in writing a very flawed character whose gender, religion, and culture are not his or that of The Martian‘s Mark Watney. Artemis is also decidedly a non-Western colony. That holds a lot of potential, but this happens to be an area where Weir holds back.
Given her background, one would expect Jazz to be a significantly different character from Watney, but when she’s not written as a caricature of a girl, her voice is measurably close to Watney’s. Or maybe both are really just Weir’s voice. Yes, Watney is more dutiful and guided by NASA ideals, and Jazz is a lazier genius, but these are not enough to pull out her real potential differences. In fact, despite her father’s devotion, Islam barely makes a dent in Jazz’s story; Saudi Arabia is nearly a footnote to Jazz’s interest in reading gossip columns.
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed Artemis, but it does not rise to the heights of The Martian, nor do the characters linger with you long after you’re done reading. In fact, in an interview at The Verge, Weir admits he’s worried about these comparisons.
“’Of course I’m worried about that, yeah. It’s my second book, and everybody’s going to be comparing it to The Martian, and it’s likely that The Martian is going to be the most successful book I ever write.…So I just had to set my sights to a reasonable level. I want people to like Artemis. I want them to say, ‘That’s a good book.’ If they also add, ‘It’s not as good as The Martian, but it’s a good book,’ I’ll call that a win.”
The Martian is a compelling story about the strength of the human spirit and the loyalty of a team. It embraced the potential goodness of humanity. Artemis is a reminder that no matter where humans go, they take their problems with them. Some may rise above them, but it is not necessarily their first nature. There’s room in the universe for that story as well, but Artemis just scratches the lunar surface.