Book review: Artemis by Andy Weir

Andy Weir decided to strike closer to home.  After his trip to Mars with his well-known book The Martian, which saw a movie adaptation that further cemented Matt Damon’s typecasting as a damsel in distress, Weir turned his sights to the Moon, in this action adventure full of unlikely and unlikable characters, not so witty one-liners, and fairly solid science.  This book stands on its own firmly in the middle of pulpy science fiction.  That’s not an enviable position: it’s not bad enough to be actually entertaining, and it’s not good enough to be memorable.  The best I can say is that it is unpredictable, so once you pick it up, chances are you’ll finish reading it.

The titular Artemis is the first and only city on the Moon.  It consists of a series of interconnected domes that house its inhabitants, who range from tourists and tax refugee millionaires, to blue collar workers who provide goods and services to keep the economy going.  Since the administration can exert control over imports, weapons and thus crime are almost unheard of.  Still, there is some gray economy.  Some of it is provided by the protagonist, a woman named Jazz Bashara, who found a way to smuggle contraband to the city.  She is a screwball, who squandered her talents, especially her intelligence and adaptability, to do odd jobs and a little smuggling on the side.

One of her regular customers, a billionaire named Trond, involves her in a scheme where she would sabotage the equipment of a company Trond wants to take over.  During the process of sabotage, which is meticulously described and sounds very plausible, she is found out and has to flee.  The company immediately sends a killer to dispose of her and Trond, but he succeeds only with the latter.  The rest of the book consists of Jazz evading the killer, finding out what was so important about the company and launching another attempt at sabotaging it, only to put everyone’s life on the Moon in danger.  There are plots within plots, economic incentives, and personal leverages and animosities all over the place, keeping the reader uncertain about what is coming next.

This is also the best part of the book.  Artemis is not a hero’s journey type of a story, with clearly delineated goals for the protagonist and a largely linear path to reach the goals.  It’s also not the kind of the story where the characters and actions are so inconsequential that the author can take liberties with both.  Here, the action is consequential for the entire humanity, and the results of the protagonist’s actions are visible by everyone on the Moon and Earth.  Instead of the author taking the easy way out and adjusting the results of Jazz’s actions to conform to some greater plan, he lets the actions play out and come with the most logical consequences.  This introduces a great deal of unpredictability to the plot, and as a result, I found the ending vastly different than what I expected towards the beginning, or even in the middle of the book.

Another positive aspect of Weir’s writing is the plausible science.  I’m no chemist, electrical engineer or materials scientist, but everything he described not only sounded like it was possible, but was also described in a way that someone with my low level of education in those fields could grasp it.  Economics, which is more along my lines of education, included some plausible concepts that I found refreshing to read about in science fiction.  I probably could have done with a little less repetition on how lunar gravity affects movement and weight of objects, but the rest of the technical details were much appreciated.

Where the book really fails is in the depictions of its characters and their interaction.  Jazz is a smartass, who also tends to be an asshole to nearly everyone in the book.  As the narrator, she has some witty comments when she describes the setting or historical background, and she has a few funny comebacks.  Unfortunately, she spends most of her time being mean to everyone else, doing her best to antagonize them.  People she interacts with, on the other hand, don’t react at all to this abuse at all.  Those who dislike her already keep disliking her further.  And those who like her don’t seem to mind.  They all seem to have a completely flat personal relationship trajectory with her.  Most never change their attitude, and the only obvious exception is her former drinking buddy Dale, who is actually trying to get closer to her despite the abuse she is hurling his way.

This bothers me on two fronts.  First, there’s Jazz.  I really don’t know how to categorize her.  As far as female protagonists go, in modern science fiction I can distinguish three types.  Those who are largely written by women, such as the main characters in the Broken Earth trilogy and Ancillary Justice and its sequels, are hostile pretty much to everyone, and manage to alienate those who’d otherwise help them.  They seem to have self-esteem issues, which causes them to act the way they do, but are strong enough (physically or have hidden superpowers) to achieve their goals on their own.  Second, we have strong women written by male writers, such as the protagonists of the Lost Fleet and Honor Harrington series.  These are self-confident women who are reliable and honorable, do what is right and inspire others to follow them.  Instead of wallowing in self-pity, when they encounter someone who thinks less of them, they encourage it, so that their opponent underestimates them.  And finally, we have women mainly in the more light-hearted science fiction, who are very capable, full of witty comebacks in conversation, can be hostile to others, but also inspire strong friendship with similarly capable people who help the along their way.

Jazz, on the other hand, is a mix of several types.  Weir is trying to portray her as being strong, by being self-confident and eminently capable of achieving anything she sets her mind to.  She apparently doesn’t need anybody, as she is abrasive to everybody she interacts with, from people who are trying to help her, to her customers.  And yet, she is not superpowered and at the end she asks for help from a whole lot of people.  It seems to me that Weir was trying to emulate Scalzi, but where Scalzi’s characters are so bad they are actually endearing in their pulpy campiness, Weir’s protagonist is only bad.

The second issue I have with the characterization is how the rest of the cast reacts to Jazz.  They are extremely one-dimensional, never actually reacting to Jazz’s attitude towards them.  Scalzi solves this with a simple trick: he has plenty of secondary characters who never change their attitude towards the protagonist, but that’s because the protagonist never gives them a reason: she interacts with different characters differently.  Jazz, on the other hand, is treating everyone equally badly, so the fact that people don’t reciprocate this attitude is by far the biggest logical fault in this book.

Artemis is a forgettable book.  It provides some compelling setting and believable science.  Unfortunately, this is spoiled by the main character who is unlikable.  Not an anti-hero whom readers are supposed to hate, but a spoiled brat whom people walk away from and forget.  This is compounded by a set of secondary characters who act inexplicably positively towards the protagonist, and thus lose any credibility in the eyes of the reader.  It is a shame: the story progression would have been good enough to keep people interested in the book if the characters didn’t break any immersion one may feel.  As it stands, this book doesn’t warrant a second read.

Note: The audio version of this book is narrated by Rosario Dawson.  She is doing an excellent job and makes the book a little more palatable.  Jazz is almost a sympathetic character there.  If you must read Artemis, I recommend the audio version.

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