Andy Weir

Book cover

I loved The Martian, but was not planning to read this. I didn’t feel like it would be possible, or necessary, to re-create the magic of that book without it feeling totally redundant. However, a friend whose tastes I respect (though we often clash enjoyably on minor things) gave it a five-star review, so I decided to check it out. I should have left well enough alone.

In certain ways, Artemis does recapitulate the formula of the original–there is quite a bit of “peril in a space environment” accompanied by quite detailed (and, I assume, accurate) scientific reasons why things work, don’t work, or are set up the way they are. The protagonist, Jazz Bashara, is also quite similar to Mark Watney in being an uber-competent wisecracking rogue. But to Weir’s credit, the book is not a mere re-hash of what was inarguably an extremely successful formula. Primarily, the action of Artemis takes place within the fabric of a society, such that the plot is advanced by Jazz’s interactions with individuals (friends, enemies, family members) and by the actions of institutions (government, corporations, crime syndicates); this contrasts with the spare human-against-the-elements style of The Martian, where social and institutional actions play a very secondary role. (In this, The Martian is similar to Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama.) Ultimately, though, I think this was an unsuccessful choice on Weir’s part. For me, the characters in Artemis are not particularly deep, their relationships not that compelling, and the overall plot structure of a small-time smuggler getting caught up in large-scale corporate and political intrigue not that original. The elegant puzzle-box of The Martian has given way to something that looks to me a lot more like generic sci-fi.

I’ll also give Weir credit for making his protagonist very clearly a woman of Middle Eastern descent. It’s good to have diversity in characters (especially in sci-fi, which has historically been a very white male genre), and even more so in a book that was essentially guaranteed to be made into a major movie after the success of The Martian. That said, I think he badly fumbles the challenge of writing a female protagonist. As I mentioned before, Jazz is in some ways a twin of Watney, but she differs in one major way–she is apparently obsessed with sex. Several conversations in the book, as well as her relationship problems with her dad, are built around the idea that she is fairly promiscuous. She makes multiple comments about sexual fantasies about male characters, and makes a few really unnecessary and just dumb sexual-reference jokes along the lines of something I’d expect from a 14-year-old boy. There is an entire plot point around a reusable condom invention that goes exactly nowhere and seemingly only exists to reinforce this aspect of Jazz’s character. In principle, I don’t have any problem with a sex-positive female character, but this aspect of her character is written in a very one-dimensional way.

It’s hard for me not to draw a direct and dismaying line between Jazz and Mark Watney. As far as I remember, Watney doesn’t really make any sexual comments, and while in some sense that’s natural given that he spends most of the book alone, it would also be pretty natural the other way for the same reason. (As an aside, Artemis retains the direct-address style of narration from The Martian, but without the this-is-a-logbook-of-a-lonely-person justification, which makes it seem totally out of place and unexplained.) My conclusion is that both are characters essentially targeted at a presumed audience of nerdy, adolescent heterosexual boys (or older men who want to indulge their inner adolescent). As far as nerding out about space goes, this is totally unproblematic, especially since that can appeal to nerds of all ages, genders and orientations. But when it comes to sex, basically, Watney doesn’t need to talk about it because the target audience spends plenty of their own alone-time thinking about sex, and Jazz is all about it because that will be titillating to the target audience. If it weren’t clear enough, Artemis contains an almost laughably obvious wish-fulfillment stand-in for the target audience in the form of the character Svoboda. Svoboda is Jazz’s friend who helps her do some engineery stuff, and quite a bit is made of his complete ineptitude with women. I spent a lot of the book hoping that it would not end with Jazz jumping Svoboda, but alas, this hope was not fulfilled. At the end of the day, I think both The Martian and Artemis have strong wish-fulfillment aspects, which is part of what makes them powerful, but The Martian’s are unproblematic and Artemis’s aren’t.

The Martian played to Weir’s strengths as a writer in a way that Artemis doesn’t. As I mentioned earlier, The Martian, like very few other works (Rendezvous With Rama and some episodes of Star Trek are the main ones that come to mind) builds a compelling plot with only nature and the unknown as the antagonists. This can be not only exciting to read, but also uplifting, in the sense that the story doesn’t need to involve any bad people, or people doing bad actions, at all. In writing a more standard plot in Artemis, Weir loses that focus on human awesomeness.

My Goodreads rating: 2 stars