Grade: 3.0 / 5.0
If you could — for a substantive chunk of your life’s savings — visit a tourist city on the moon, would you? Hint: The answer should be yes.
For Jazz, the snarky protagonist of Andy Weir’s sophomore novel, it’s a not a decision she has to make. She’s a permanent resident of the lunar city Artemis, one of the lower-class residents that keep the place running for the likes of tourists and the “J. Worthalot Richbastard III’s” that live there (her description). Raised on the moon, she’s used to all it has to offer, from poorly reconstituted beer (why pay to ship water when you can make it on the moon?) to stairs with half-meter-high steps, to allow its citizens to take advantage of the reduced lunar gravity.
Her main business isn’t strictly speaking legal; a well-placed mole on Earth and a few strategic bribes allow her to smuggle contraband into the city during regular shipments. When a clandestine job worth a million slugs (that’s soft-landed-grams, the cost to ship a gram to the moon and Artemis’s de facto currency) presents itself, she jumps at the chance. So what if it involves some major industrial sabotage out on the unforgiving lunar surface?
Weir’s worldbuilding is, as expected, richly detailed. Though the science of it all takes a bit of a backseat in “Artemis,” the lunar city is brimming with little details that lend it a sense of authenticity — for example, at 20 percent of the Earth’s atmospheric pressure, the boiling point of water is 61 degrees Celsius. What does that mean? It means coffee on the moon sucks.
The question on everyone’s mind, though, is not whether “Artemis” is scientifically accurate — that much is expected. Higher on the docket is how this sophomore effort compares to first novel “The Martian.”
In a lot of ways, that’s not a fair question. “The Martian” was a singular novel, one Weir released for free, online, chapter by chapter, and that scientists would actively fact check, writing in and allowing Weir to rewrite the story in real time and craft it into one of the most factually accurate sci-fi books to reach widespread public readership in recent years. Even NASA was all over it.
Surprisingly, only a few things keep “Artemis” from matching its predecessor’s heights. “Artemis” is as much a page-turner as its forebear from a plot perspective, but the difference is that “The Martian” is inherently a human survival story — and rooting for humanity in the face of nature’s cold cruelty is kind of what we are hardwired to do. Not to mention that the protagonist of “The Martian” is hugely likable; Weir describes him as a perfected version of himself.
Jazz, meanwhile, is flawed — and flawed primarily in such a way that her sardonic, cynical personality pushes away those around her, and to a certain extent, the reader. She’s also immature, sometimes to the point of infantilization; segments of “Artemis” read like a YA novel with a YA protagonist. And while it’s not impossible to get behind a criminal protagonist, it takes a little bit of extra work.
Of larger concern is the issue of representation, since Jazz is presented as a Saudi woman — a decision made somewhat arbitrarily (Jazz was a originally a tertiary character in earlier drafts of the novel, before taking on the protagonist role).
And while representation itself is good, the choice to write from a perspective not one’s own, particularly a POC female one, benefits from careful thought. Weir did have women read “Artemis” and give feedback, but certain lines, such as “I giggled like a little girl. Hey, I’m a girl, so I’m allowed,” and “Sure, I have a nice body, but I wish it had been a little more effort to become so trashy” can easily come across as ill-informed or inauthentic.
Further, Weir does not often deal directly with Jazz’s Saudi upbringing — it primarily appears in a sequence in which she wears a niqab as a disguise. “Okay, you can stop pretending you know what a niqab is,” she chastises her readers, none of whom, evidently, are Muslim. Ultimately Weir’s claim is that Artemis has its own culture that has primarily shaped Jazz, which may be more or less true but also downplays the deep-seeded effect that having a devout Muslim, Saudi father would have on her personality, which even a good sensitivity reader cannot impart.
Ultimately these smaller miscues don’t detract wholly from the novel, but they do invite the possibility of a bit more care (or at least intention) on the author’s part when approaching the subject of representation. Weir has noted he would like sequels to focus on different sets of characters in Artemis à la Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld,” which is a great opportunity to find thoughtful ways in which he as a white author can contribute to, and not detract from, representations of minorities and women.
With the movie for “Artemis” already in the works, he’ll probably have his chance.