Artemis is a Harsh Mistress
So you get hired for a bit of corporate sabotage... on the Moon... What could possibly go wrong?
This is the plot of Artemis, Andy Weir's new witty hard sci-fi followup to his wildly successful first novel, The Martian. As a big fan of The Martian, I was one of those nerds who preordered the book so I could get a signed copy and read it right away. Artemis was released on November 14th. I wasted no time soaking in this story.
I promise to keep it light on spoilers. In fact, I don't give much away at all.
Weir drops us right into the action. But this time, our hero is no astronaut, but rather Jazz Bashara, a woman who has lived on the Moon nearly her whole life. She's also a bit of a troublemaker. Okay, she's a lot of a troublemaker. Unlike with The Martian, our lead character this time is not entirely heroic. But she is fascinating. As The Irresponsible Reader put it, "It’s not as essential to like Jazz as it was Mark Watney to enjoy this book, but it’s close." I found I empathized with Jazz while not always liking or agreeing with her some of her choices. But I could at least see why she felt the need to make such choices.
Weir manages to blend wit and intrigue into a story that features a female of Saudi descent. I know Weir has said in interviews that he chose to write a female lead because it just made sense to the story. I'm glad he did. But I do wonder if there wasn't some forethought put into what a city on the Moon several decades into the future might be like given the continued currents of social change in our world.
It's honestly refreshing to read sci-fi that isn't so American-centric. Artemis, the permanent city on the Moon the book is named after, was founded by the Kenyan Space Center. Much of the cast of characters hail from a variety of nationalities and religious views. One supporting characters is gay and another is handicapped, but both are not ultimately defined by these aspects of their character. Some might see this as Weir intentionally trying to pander somehow. I would disagree with that. From where I sit, it sure reads a lot more like a genuine reflection of where culture is and where it's headed. Sci-fi hasn't always gotten this right. Too often in the past sci-fi authors have combined fantastic concepts with misogyny, patriarchal biases, and/or a white American-centric vision of the future. But that's not the world we live in anymore. Hasn't been for a long time. I'm glad to see Artemis provides a more realistic and interesting view of the future.
Where Artemis struggles a little--and understandably so--is that at times Jazz's witty banter is hard not to read in Mark Watney's voice. After all, this humor is really Weir's wit coming through, since he's admitted to infusing The Martian's Watney with his own dark sense of humor. We see it here too. After his first novel's success, I have to imagine that Weir's felt serious pressure to deliver once more an engaging, fast-paced, and funny sci-fi tale. And naturally, it's damn near impossible for readers like me not to compare his second novel to his first. After all, that's a pretty big shadow Mark Watney is casting (says the guy who's second computer monitor still has the film's version of Watney as the desktop as he writes this).
Now, Artemis is definitely about having fun. Weir makes no bones about the fact that he's not interested in pushing any particular agendas. In fact, in an interview with the New York Times, he went so far as to say,
"I tend to avoid fiction that’s too dark or serious or has a political message. For me, fiction is a form of escapism. I want to leave the real world, not sit around and stress about it. Just my personal preference.
For the record, my stories are meant to be purely escapist. They have no subtext or message. If you think you see something like that, it’s in your head, not mine. I just want you to read and have fun."
I would love to grab a beer with Weir someday and discuss our potentially differing philosophies of storytelling (seriously, what an awesome evening that would be). While I do believe that a novel or movie has to first work as entertainment to work on any other level, I'll admit that I tend towards wanting to offer up stories with some undergirding view of reality that guides it and hopefully offers readers or viewers something to contemplate well after walking away.
Artemis definitely delivers on this escapism. Maybe Weir's just too cautious. It's not that Artemis has an agenda to push, but there's something to be said about escapism that allows us to empathize with a character that we don't often get in mainstream sci-fi. Jazz manages to be tough and vulnerable all at once. She's self-reliant and innovative, and her story does not revolve around a love interest, which is pretty cool. That's not to say such stories couldn't involve a love interest, but it's nice to see that not every such novel has to do so. Honestly, in this case, a romantic subplot would have gotten in the way.
In the end, what works for me about Artemis is that Jazz feels human. Like I said, I don't quite agree with everything she's doing, but I understand her motives. What is great about Jazz is that she makes mistakes and learns from them. Meanwhile, the complicated ethical terrain that Jazz has to navigate is actually more relevant to our current world than Weir's assertion that his book is pure escapism might indicate. Beneath the fun of reading Artemis is an all too real notion that our world is increasingly connected to forces of greed and powers of corruption in ways that we have a hard time getting around or avoiding.
I'll grant Weir the fact that there's no allegory or agenda in Artemis. None of the forces of corporate greed and organized crime in the novel read as direct parallels or criticisms of current specific people or organizations (unlike Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress). To do so would be to force an interpretation of the book that the story just doesn't support. I do wonder if the story might not have benefitted from having a little more of an undergirding worldview. Often, the most lasting stories are born in response to very real things that need to be dealt with (like how Tolkien channeled much of his experience with World War I into The Lord of the Rings or how H. G. Wells wrote The Time Machine as a criticism of utopian literature). However, Artemis ultimately does offer one rather pertinent philosophical question: How does one forge an existence and protect family and friends from the increasingly unethical forces of big business without bending or breaking some (okay, like, a lot) of rules along the way?