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Artemis by Andy WeirUK cover2.5 stars
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By now, all of you should be thoroughly familiar with Andy Weir’s too-good-to-be-true rags-to-riches story, turning his modest self-published debut novel The Martian into a legit global pop culture phenomenon culminating in an Oscar-nominated blockbuster film adaptation by Ridley Scott. So I shouldn’t have to be the 200th critic to open my review by recapping it, though — oh well — I guess I just did. The point is, of course, that the success of The Martian was so phenomenal, it’s the type of monster hit that a writer’s entire subsequent career will be measured by, however good or bad his later works turn out to be. The pressure to deliver, and deliver big, in his second novel, is one that Andy Weir has responded to predictably enough, meaning that Artemis is probably the safest novel Weir could have turned in short of just saying “the hell with it” and writing The Martian II.

Like The Martian, Artemis features a smartass protagonist facing peril on another world — this time, the moon — that will require attitude, cleverness and scientific savvy to resolve. The Martian connected with a mass audience due to its simple, high-concept premise. In Artemis, Weir attempts a far more complex narrative, centering his plot on an elaborate and layered criminal conspiracy in pursuit of a classic McGuffin. And the novel’s opening scenes do a superb job of establishing the five-domed lunar city of Artemis as a believable environment. We are firmly in Arthur C. Clarke territory here, as Weir explains, with impressive clarity, the city’s economy, history and social hierarchy. And his fidelity to scientific accuracy allows him to be observant about such details as the fact Artemisian citizens are used to drinking their coffee much too cold for the tastes of Earth tourists, because the boiling point of water is lower.

Our heroine is Jasmie “Jazz” Bashara, a young Saudi woman who has spent the vast majority of her life in Artemis and considers it her only home. Jazz works mostly as a porter, but has a reasonably lucrative sideline smuggling contraband from Earth into the city. She’s secular and sexually liberated, while her observant Muslim father, who has his prayer rug attached to the wall of his welding shop to properly face Mecca, expresses mild rebuke towards her life choices but remains quietly paternal and supportive all the same.

But Artemis is much like Earth, in that there’s little social mobility, and Jazz is desperate to move up from her bottom-tier life, with an apartment that’s barely more than a coffin to sleep in. She has just failed her most recent EVA test, which could have opened up an opportunity to earn serious bank leading wealthy tourists on lunar surface jaunts. Fortunately, one of Jazz’s smuggling clients is expat Norwegian billionaire Trond Landvik. A pillar of Artemisian society, Trond makes Jazz an offer she can’t refuse — financially, that is — to help him in a plot to take over the aluminum smelting company whose operations also provide all of Artemis with its oxygen. It’s a crazy plot that requires a bit of brazen sabotage, and Jazz is all in. And, as these things must, everything goes all wrong, and in no time Jazz finds herself on the run from both Artemisian authority and mob enforcers, with the stakes ultimately rising to encompass the survival of the lunar city itself.

It sounds like it couldn’t fail, and it shouldn’t. But what worked for The Martian does not always work here, and Artemis has a way of underscoring Weir’s shortcomings more than highlighting his strengths. Let’s start with Jazz Bashara.

Weir acknowledges six women, including a Muslim friend who provided details regarding Islam, with helping him “tackle the challenge of writing a female narrator.” So I suppose if they all signed off on Jazz as a good character, I’m not in any position to contradict them. Your mileage will certainly vary in terms of how likable or unlikable you find her.

But the main problem with Jazz is that she’s just Mark Watney all over again. Watney’s attitude and endless flow of sarcasm made sense in The Martian. After all, keeping up a healthy sense of humor is a known and effective mechanism for facing the sort of crisis Watney was facing, one that had much greater odds of ending in his death than otherwise. But Jazz? Well, Jazz is just a total wiseass all the time, about everything, and it’s attitude for the sake of attitude. In fact, a lot of Jazz’s friends also have a way of talking and acting just like Mark Watney. Barely anyone has an actual conversation in this book. They just engage in competitive snarking. And, to be perfectly honest, making the heroine a woman of color feels very much the way it felt in Veronica Roth’s Carve the Mark, as an attempt to circle a box on the Diversity Bingo card. Mostly, Weir gives Jazz plenty of F-bomb laden dialogue marking her out as “just one of the boys.” For all that he’s attempted to diversify his cast, in the end it feels like Mark Watney is the entirety of Weir’s character development toolkit.

Weir’s prose, devoted as it is to smartass first-person narration, has never been a model of elegant writing. But dear lord, I do hope next time his editors take a more hands-on approach. Some sentences are just cringe-inducing. (At one point Jazz tells us, “Life’s a pain in the ass when you have a cop constantly on your ass.”)

And Weir’s fixation on crunching the numbers and getting all the science absolutely right, while admirable from a hard SF standpoint, actually dampens the tension in Artemis, whereas in The Martian it enhanced tension. Weir explains everything in exhaustive detail, right down to the thickness and composition of the habitat’s exterior walls and the precise degree of air pressure, so on and so on. Sure enough, I’d bet actual engineers could use Weir’s blueprints and build a city on the moon for real. But excessive details throw off the story’s pacing. Late in the novel there’s an entire chapter dedicated to welding a makeshift airlock onto the outer hull of a habitat dome, and coming at a point in the story where the tension should be agonizing, it’s just boring.

But to be fair, other bits do work, such as the extended scene mid-novel where Jazz attempts her first EVA act of sabotage, requiring her to avoid security detection while exiting Artemis, and then avoid horrible death while getting back into the city, also undetected. Weir is firing on all cylinders here. But too often, we’re dealing with Jazz being either amazingly brilliant or just as amazingly stupid as the plot requires her to be at a given moment. This leads to, shall we say, erratic success in maintaining consistent dramatic tension.

So Artemis is a mixed bag, not quite a sophomore slump but not a book that especially distinguishes itself either. It proves that Andy Weir is, so far, very good at working within a limited storytelling range, with his greater potential still a bit stymied by an unwillingness to venture too far from his commercially proven comfort zone. He could yet take everything to the next level in whatever he chooses to write next. But to be frank, John Scalzi could toss off a book like Artemis while in the middle of Skyping his investment banker, and make it a lot funnier and more convincing by far. Hopefully next time, Andy Weir offers perhaps a little less jazz… and a lot more metal.