Andy Weir exploded onto the literary scene with The Martian, a book that had such huge crossover appeal that Matt Damon played its protagonist in the film version. Sci-fi and fantasy books that have crossover appeal are becoming less rare, but Weir’s grounded, tech-explanations-heavy, roller coaster ride is unique–it’s one of those books that’s uniquely perfect in execution. It contains within itself a perfect beginning, that by necessity maintains drama and heart–even a middlingly good writer could make that work. Weir is more than middlingly good, and so the book absolutely soars. Everyone I know who’s read it cried at least once.
So the big question is, can his next novel live even halfway up to that standard? The Martian was so massively good that it was hard to expect something that perfectly done, but going into Andy Weir’s new novel, Artemis, is the real test of whether Andy Weir will be able maintain the loyalty he’s gained from so many fans.
It’s worth saying at the top that Artemis is not the constant, high-stakes thrill ride that The Martian is. At its heart, Artemis is the story of a small-time crook in a small town, that just happens to be on the moon. Her story is by necessity smaller in scope. Artemis starts relatively slowly, with an introduction to the world of the moon colony named Artemis. The Martian is a novel written for hardcore sci-fi nerds, that works so well beyond that subset because Andy Weir makes space science seem simple. Artemis is, again, written for the hardcore sci-fi crowd, but I think its appeal will be more limited to that sphere. Fantasy and sci-fi often appeal to those who want to live in a different world, and Artemis is slow to start in part because the book takes its time to revel in the world it’s building. This trope is familiar and welcomed in sci-fi fans but might be harder to get over for readers who don’t normally stray into the genre, especially since the action is thin on the ground while Weir sets the gears of his story in motion.
It’s also worth mentioning at this point that Andy Weir is significantly influenced by the golden age of spaceflight and of space fiction. In The Martian, his love for NASA was readily apparent; The Martian is, after all, heavily inspired by the story of Apollo 13, with the idea of writing a space survival story on that scale where the reader doesn’t have the benefit of knowing how it ends. In his dedication for Artemis, Weir gives thanks to a list of names that he mentions as not being appreciated enough; the names are all of Apollo-era Mission Control workers, who Weir might have become more familiar with in Failure is Not an Option, a Mission Control memoir penned by Gene Kranz that covers the moon landing as well as Apollo 13. Weir is clearly intimately comfortable with the stories and people surrounding the Apollo era of NASA, which is reflected in the community of characters he builds in the city of Artemis, the way they’re all capable experts able to pull off genius on a tight schedule. For my money, I also see a clear influence of sci-fi Old God Robert Heinlein. His novel The Moon is A Harsh Mistress, which is also a story about a corporatized moon colony, has several similarities. If you’ve read it, Weir’s actually works well as a deconstruction–the way the administrator of Artemis, Ngugi, speaks frankly about the realities of economics contrasts well with Heinlein’s capitalistic utopian vision.
But you don’t have to read Heinlein to like this book, and frankly, most modern readers should start with Weir rather than the other way around. As Seanan McGuire, a fantasy author, pointed out recently on Twitter, Heinlein and Asimov are so far removed from the modern, diverse reader that they can scare those readers right off genre fiction. (I threw Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love across the room when it referred to people who get sex change surgery as “abominations.”) Modern readers want a modicum of diversity and good taste in their genre fiction, and Weir is able to deliver on that front. Our protagonist, Jazz Bashara, is a short Saudi woman, has a gay former best friend, and a disabled character features prominently. Kenyan, Brazilian, and Hong Kong interests are involved in the intrigue that plays out over the course of the novel. Weir isn’t a paragon of perfect diversity, but his world does seem pointedly global. It’s nice.
The thrust of the book strays close to the mystery genre, but it’s…not quite a mystery novel. While an intrigue is central to the narrative of the book, just as much of the book is dedicated to Jazz Bashara’s past, and her current development. Jazz, a woman with huge potential who has mostly wasted it, is at a standstill in her life. She’s constantly reaching for the opportunity to become rich, or at least rich enough to have a private bathroom, but her life seems to constantly send her back to relative poverty. As the book unfolds, she gets a chance to risk it all to get rich quick, but of course, that comes with its own consequences. Jazz has to contend between her potential to be brilliant and her uncanny ability to fuck up her own opportunities.
This book is…very Andy Weir, and when it comes to tone, it’s not necessarily an asset. Jazz Bashara, written in the first person, has a very similar voice to The Martian’s Mark Watney–very, very similar. Jazz is likeable, sure, and sometimes Andy Weir has a line so sassy and good, you just have to sit back and appreciate how good it is. But for a second novel I would’ve liked to see Weir stretch his perspective more, to tell a story without a sassy, pop-culture-referencing main character who gets by on their gusto. Mark Watney and Jazz Bashara live very different lives, and I wanted to see that reflected more in Jazz’s internal voice.
Overall, this book is fun, likeable, and the plot is brisk. Andy Weir excels at writing taut space-based adventures, and making it easy to follow along with technical details. I like that he ventured further into sci-fi speculation with this novel, and into portraying a wider diversity of characters. But that’s just in terms of surface traits–under the surface, Mark Watney and Jazz Bashara are essentially the same, which was a little disappointing for me. Andy Weir has retained my loyalty, but I didn’t feel like he strayed far enough from familiar ground. He’s talented enough to take risks, and to grow, and I want to see that growth.
Talk to me about Artemis in the comments section or on Twitter!