Book review of Andy Weir’s Artemis…

(Andy Weir, Artemis, Crown-Penguin Random House, 2017, ISBN 978-0-553-44812-2)

Visitors to this website and readers of this blog should know that my book reviews originate in two ways. I “officially review” at Bookpleasures.com because I can choose from many books I’m not familiar with and provide authors new to me some name recognition. I also read many books for R&R and will sometimes review some of them if I have something positive to say. In either case, I won’t refrain from stating the negatives.

Artemis fits in the last category, I suppose, but I didn’t buy it.  I rarely purchase any Big Five ebooks these days because I can buy three, sometimes four, excellent ebooks for the price of one Big Five ebook.  That said, I’m reviewing the print version that I received as a gift.  I enjoyed Mark Weir’s new sci-fi thriller enough that I’m motivated to write the review, even with its many flaws. So, play Ennio Morricone’s wonderful score, because I’m going to discuss the good, bad, and ugly about this novel.

The good. This is a fair sci-fi thriller, much better than The Martian in the genre-sense.  It’s nothing like Weir’s first book, in fact, and dabbles in some political issues that make me think of sci-fi Libertarians like Heinlein, Pournelle, Niven, and Hogan.  Actually, that’s a negative, but I just want to point out that the plot is much more complex. I’ll read a good sci-fi story even if I disagree with opinions expressed via underlying themes.

The tale here has more meat on it than The Martian, although compared to Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Friday, two classics, Weir’s novel often seems like watered-down Bud Light compared to Guinness.  Fun, yes; profoundly entertaining, no. Heinlein’s first book has a better plot (though Weir’s is also Libertarian, in the sense that the lunar city has a lot of vigilante justice), is more entertaining (Heinlein’s characters aren’t stereotypes, for example), and is more profound (Heinlein’s lunar city is a penal colony, for example, not a haven for fascist capitalists); his second has a better female protagonist (OK, she’s a bit of a female Rambo, but not a spoiled brat).  To his credit, Weir’s main character is a woman; he stepped up to that challenge.  From his acknowledgments, he even had female help, but something went wrong. Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara acts like a precocious, immature, and rebellious tween throughout the book, not a mature woman in her twenties with some common sense. Does Weir think this YA character merits serious sci-fi readers’ attention?

The plot starts slowly—there’s too much superfluous narrative because Weir isn’t world-building in this novel—but the pace increases, enough so to keep me reading to finish the tale.  Jazz is smart, but she wants to be rich. She graduates from small-time smuggler to more profitable crime…and gets into a heap of trouble. You might think she’s some urban urchin eking out a street life in any big city on Earth—in fact, you could transport the tale to such a venue, except for the lunar setting—but she lives in Artemis, the first and only lunar city created in the future by a strange Kenyan organization–as Africa’s response to European colonialism, it’s too much like a Steve Jobs’ project. (That’s a bit weird, but I’ll not dwell on it.)

The bad. The boring potato farming in The Martian has been replaced by boring details about Jasmine’s life, EVAs, and blowing up ore harvesters and smelters.  Like the potato farming, most readers will want to skip over most of the tedious technical details in Artemis—they read like an engineering manual, except Jazz is describing them in her urban-urchin’s cutesy language.  The tech here is more varied, but most people won’t be able to check it, or care to do so. I was turned off by the super fiber optics, though. Any transmission medium is lossy—zero loss only exists in a vacuum, and there EM radiation (light and radio, for example) loses by the one-over-r-squared effect. Because the story depends so much on this “discovery” in fiber-optics technology, I was immediately turned off.  And Weir only provides some unbelievable techno-babble to explain why it has to be made in a low-g environment.

But the writing isn’t as fresh as The Martian either, even if you maintain that boring potato-farming narrative in his first book. Artemis is more thriller than sci-fi, and Mr. Weir needs a lot more experience writing a thriller.  His book represents immature and naïve writing, with a story that’s a cross between the two Heinlein novels, which are far better books. And the sci-fi part is as weak as the thriller part.  Besides the assumption that the venue makes it sci-fi—it doesn’t—the science isn’t sound…so let’s proceed to…

The ugly. I’m not talking about technological descriptions per se.  Weir does OK with that; he’s done his amateur-scientist’s homework, although his understanding of fiber optics is a wee bit limited.  No, he fails by making his lunar city have a mix of ethnic groups that haven’t blended very much.  In fact, his main problem is that he seems to buy into the naïve (politically based?) ghetto-like clichés that one ethnic group will become welders, another glass blowers, another air quality experts, and so forth. He even talks about guilds as if he’s writing about the Middle Ages and not the moon. Maybe he wants Jazz to feel like she’s at home in that current 6th century and anti-scientific caliphate known as Saudi Arabia, where her ancestors come from?  For some reason, she doesn’t want to be deported to Riyadh, though.  I don’t blame her–Saudi Arabia is the orginal ISIS of the Middle East!

This is poor scientific extrapolation, where the science is cultural anthropology. Every scientist worth his salt knows the danger of extrapolation (of course, Weir isn’t a scientist).  While some extrapolation is necessary in sci-fi, either Weir doesn’t recognize cultural anthropology as a science—in his defense, too many physicists and engineers don’t either, which explains why they don’t understand their own subculture—or he commits the sin of wild extrapolation that is inconsistent with a lunar city. In any case, the story suffers—the whole cultural extrapolation for this lunar city borders on the absurd. This also extends to Jasmine’s language.  It’s cutesy, immature kid-on-the-street-speak—Weir’s nod to urban coolness (his perception of it, of course!)?

Jasmine is also a typical boring female protagonist.  If you gloss over her immature behavior, she’s a lunar Barbarella in that she’s a sexy, kick-butt dynamo.  Heinlein’ Friday was a Rambo; Jazz thinks she is, and that’s a problem.  Her cutesy dialogues extend to Weir’s other prose too, complete with inaccurate cultural references: 007 is already on the decline, so why would a Muslim girl from the future living in a lunar city say something like, “We could play 007 if he wanted”; and can’t Mr. Weir bother to check whether Loretta Sanchez is a Brazilian or Portuguese name (it isn’t)? Maybe some readers will overlook these nitpicks, but I find them amateurish. (But it’s only Weir’s second book, after all.)

The latter reinforces a point already made but worth repeating: why would ethnic backgrounds be so important in a lunar city of the future?  In Weir’s defense, Heinlein makes the same error in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, although he’s at least a bit prescient, considering the time he wrote the book—I’d certainly like to banish criminals like Putin to a lunar city!  Or hard vacuum.  Maybe a few Americans too?  I think Weir is trying to play political and still write fluff that won’t disturb any reader, and that makes for bad sci-fi.

With The Martian, Mr. Weir started out as an indie author, hanging rough drafts of the novel off his website. But he’s also graduated to more profitable crime along with Jazz, going to the dark side (not the moon’s) by signing a contract with a major publishing firm for this novel. (I think one picked up The Martian too.)  Nothing wrong with that, of course—call it popular success (just look at all the one- and two-line product endorsements Artemis already has for reviews), money talks, and he probably wants to cash in on the rep gained from The Martian—but for me, it’s a bit disappointing, and maybe the ugliest of the ugly.

First, it means many people will never read his new book unless they receive it as a gift like I did; on Amazon, the ebook is $13.99 and the print version is $16.20, maintaining the ubiquitous trend of the Big Five charging almost as much for an ebook as print, and pricing both higher than anything I’ll pay for! Second, it means that the publisher is continuing their practice of ignoring new voices and betting on the sure horses on the publishing racetrack, even though this is only Mr. Weir’s second book of any consequence and not a sequel to The Martian–name recognition is a great thing.  Third, there’s a lot of hoopla over this book, with many people calling it another sci-fi success (mostly Crown-Penguin Random House?), when you could, like I said, put Jazz down in NYC and have basically the same story—changing the venue to the moon doesn’t make it sci-fi, except maybe in Hollywood (let’s see them put all that boring techno-jargon into a movie, though–that was a major and boring part of the movie version of The Martian).

But is the novel entertaining? Sure. Maybe in the same way any thriller about a government conspiracy is. It was a nice, light, and fluffy read to kill some time over the holidays, but there’s nothing earthshaking about it (or should I say moonshaking?). Of course, The Martian wasn’t earthshaking either.  Artemis is good, trivial, but jazzy (pardon th pun) entertainment like you might get from Hollywood, and not great sci-fi (but will Hollywood make it into another movie for Weir?).

Read it if you must–or someone was nice enough to give you a copy as a gift.  You might want to try it and like it enough to finish—reading an OK book beats a bad Hollywood DC or Marvel comics movie any day—but at such a high price, it’s not worth spending your GOP tax windfall on, because that movie would be less expensive!

Your opinions might differ. Fans of Weir, rip me apart if you like. As usual, all comments to blog posts are accepted, unless they use foul language.

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The Chaos Chronicles Trilogy Collection, a bundle of sci-fi novels, is now available on Amazon and Smashwords.  Many hours of epic sci-fi for a reasonable price.  And More than Human: The Mensa Contagion and Rogue Planet are now on sale at Smashwords.  Use the coupon code when you check out.

In libris libertas….

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