From Martian to Moonling: Artemis

Andy Weir took the world by storm with The Martian, both the book and the movie adaptation.  Naturally, there was a great deal of interest in Weir’s second novel, Artemis (2017).  Here’s my take.

Here Be Spoilers!

Artemis, book coverThe book’s been out long enough that the spoilers below won’t occasion a great deal of surprise, but if you haven’t read the story yet, you may want to save these gems of wisdom until you’ve done so.

A New Departure

First, Artemis is not a sequel to The Martian.  As far as I can see, the two stories have nothing to do with each other.  That’s good.  It’s easy to get stuck in a single storyline, especially if it’s a howling success.

Moreover, Weir gets credit for trying out an entirely different kind of story.  The Martian was a classic survival/rescue tale, populated by clean-cut NASA types.  Artemis is more of a caper story, with a cast of crooks, con artists, and wheeler-dealers.  They’re both set in space environments, but aside from that, the books are poles apart.  That was intentional.  As an interview in The Verge (11/14/17) reported, “Weir told me that following The Martian was scary, and that he shifted his expectations with writing it.”

A Motley Cast of Characters

Moving from a single exploratory mission to a thriving city on the Moon allows Weir to deploy a more varied array of characters.  For example, our first-person narrator, Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara, is a small-time smuggler in Artemis, the first city on the moon.  She’s a feisty, cynical young woman semi-estranged from her Muslim engineer father.  Jazz’s ambitions are nothing so noble as exploring new worlds:  she simply wants to make a lot of money so she can improve her hand-to-mouth life.  She’s an engaging main character, if you like a scamp.

Artemis, posterOn the other hand, Jazz is not the charming sort of scamp you might envision—a female Han Solo or Aladdin.  She’s tough, no-nonsense, and rather abrasive.  Weir noted in a Newsweek interview (11/14/17) that readers don’t much like her.  I found that an issue too.  There are a lot of unfortunate character traits to deal with.  Jazz is practically a genius (in ch. 3, she admits nonchalantly that she taught herself electronics from an online tutorial in an afternoon)—but she doesn’t live up to her potential.  She’s promiscuous, she’s materialistic, she sees almost all transactions in terms of money.

Jazz’s main virtue is that she’s an ethical thief:  when she makes a shady deal, she sticks to it.  Actually, this rude sense of justice isn’t a bad place to start respecting a character.  Like the proverbial honest politician (“one who stays bought”), she has some principles.  She’s also daring (if reckless), clever (if hardly infallible), brave, and determined.  Although she wasn’t my most-loved character of all time, I enjoyed hanging out with her enough that I didn’t lose interest in the story.

Other characters are pretty varied:  Martin Svoboda, the geeky engineer lacking social skills; Trond, the slick magnate, and his engaging daughter Lene; Ammar Bashara, Jazz’s considerably more strait-laced but competent and loyal father; law-abiding Rudy DuBois, the city’s entire police force; Fidelis Ngugi, the visionary founder of Artemis; and so on.

There’s no romance in the story, although there’s a faint suggestion at the end that Jazz will eventually get together with Martin—not a combination I would have thought of.

A Land of Liberty and License

Weir pictures the first lunar city as a lightly-governed free-for-all.  It’s been established by Kenya, which in this scenario takes the advantage of its equatorial location for space launches.  Under Ngugi’s leadership, Kenya sets up an attractive, largely unregulated base for businesses on the Moon—mainly businesses connected with tourism.  It’s a logical financial basis for the first moon colony.  The situation reflects Weir’s fascination with economics, an aspect that didn’t have much play in The Martian.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress coverIn the interview with The Verge, Weir uses the term “libertarian”—and in that connection cites the Robert A. Heinlein novel The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (1966), which does leap to mind as a predecessor.  Heinlein’s story, perhaps his best single novel, imagines the Moon as a multinational penal colony, just as Australia was for Britain in the eighteenth century.  Since the colony’s administration doesn’t much care what happens to the inhabitants, they’re left to manage their own internal affairs, according to customs and practices that evolve out of the peculiar conditions of lunar life.  The result is a colorful, freewheeling polyglot society that allows Heinlein to make a lot of pithy observations about conventional Earthly manners and mores.

Heinlein’s “Loonies” live in a harsh but in some ways utopian culture.  Weir’s Artemis is not presented in quite so favorable a light.  We do enjoy the chiaroscuro combination of resort-town luxury and shady underbelly in which Jazz operates.  But it’s clearly a hardscrabble life for a considerable part of the population—the service people and human ‘infrastructure’ that make the tourists’ luxury possible.  It’s what Weir, in the interview, calls a “gold rush” setting.

On the other hand, this libertarian polity is seen as a stage in a long progression, not a utopian end in itself.  Toward the end of the story (ch. 17, p. 300), Fidelis Ngugi, the visionary founder, says:  “It’s all part of the life-cycle of an economy.  First it’s lawless capitalism until that starts to impede growth.  Next comes regulation, law enforcement, and taxes.  After that:  public benefits and entitlements.  Then, finally, over-expenditure and collapse.”

Because Artemis is so colorful and well-drawn, the city is almost a character in itself, like Dickens’ London or Nero Wolfe’s New York City.  I wouldn’t mind seeing more stories set in Artemis as it develops.

Science Capers

One thing the book does have in common with The Martian:  science.  Weir frequently drops into detailed explanations of How Things Work, and the conditions of the lunar environment play key roles in the plot, as the Martian landscape did in the prior book.  I find this fascinating.  I’m not sure whether every reader will—but the success of The Martian (in both its incarnations) suggests there’s a sizable audience that does.  More on that point in a later post.

But the science here is at the service of a very different plot.  With the prospect of a vast payoff, Jazz evolves a complex plan to undermine one business so that another can take over.  She then has to devise an even more involved scheme to keep gangsters from effectively taking over the city.  Readers of The Martian can find a common form of enjoyment here, in watching these plans play out, even though the characters’ purposes and contexts are rather different.

Mission Impossible - Barbara Bain and Martin LandauThere’s actually a good deal of precedent for this “science caper” type of story.  The old “Mission Impossible” TV series typically displayed an elaborate scheme deployed by the mission team to outwit and bamboozle the bad guys.  (Not so much the more recent movies, which tend to be more general-purpose thrillers.)  The 1985–1992 series “MacGyver” also turned on the technical wizardry of the lead character, a consummate engineering improviser.

In fact, there’s a whole category of techno-thrillers about using complex plans and technology to break into something or make off with something.  Sometimes the emphasis is on the trickery, as in The Thomas Crown Affair (I saw the 1999 version).  Sometimes it’s more on the techniques, as in Entrapment or the early part of National Treasure.  Many of the James Bond films invoke this trope.

Much of The Martian consisted of scientific problem-solving, though on a more low-key, continuing basis.  (Mark Watney remarks that he’s going to have to “science the s— out of this” to survive, though given the way he fertilizes his crop, maybe he should have said “science the s— into this.”)  Only at the end does the techno-wizardry move into crisis mode.

In Weir’s Verge interview, he says, “My approach was pretty similar to The Martian. There was a lot of problem-solving . . .”  The difference is that Jazz’s science schemes in Artemis face hostile human opposition, not just a dangerous universe.  The suspense is more focused and urgent.

The Next Movie

Artemis seems even more cinematically apt than The Martian.  It’s no surprise that the movie rights have already been sold and directors chosen.  We can monitor developments here at IMDB.

I don’t know whether Artemis will be as successful as The Martian at the theaters.  The abrasive heroine might turn out to be less of a crowd-pleaser than the amiable Watney.  But that’s just the kind of nuance that a movie could easily adjust.  It’ll be interesting to see them try.

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6 thoughts on “From Martian to Moonling: Artemis

  1. After having read Artemis, I have to admit, it was not as engaging as “The Martian”. Although, as with most novels, if I believe there may be a hint of redemption ahead, I stay stubbornly hopeful to the end.
    I could not help to think of the parallel of poor island nations (in this case: the moon), being exploited for the rich patron’s excesses, and leaving the locals with their usual economic struggles. I do believe this scenario, thinking the moon as a “destination” for tourist, is a bit of a stretch. However, the use of mining moon’s natural resources, seems credible.

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    • Yes; I can go through a good deal of rough stuff in a story if there is, as you say, “a hint of redemption ahead,” I had that reaction recently reading The Music Shop: I was getting ready to come down hard given the way the story seemed to be headed . . . and then the author (Rachel Joyce) pulled off the ending after all!

      Weir clearly has a third-world analogy in mind in Artemis — with the difference that the “locals” are as much newcomers as the tourists.

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  2. So much food for thought here, and I didn’t even read Artemis 😛

    On the abrasive heroine: movie magic tends to smooth these things over. I’ll tell you a story involving another book/film combo. It includes spoilers, so skip the next paragraph if you want to avoid having The Circle spoiled.

    I loved The Circle– the novel, that is– despite its not-rarely clunky prose. The Circle, however, is a very bleak book, whose conclusion is that a more-Google-Facebook-than-Google-Facebook company worms itself into every aspect of our outward lives, and even maybe, in the near future, our thoughts too. The heroine of the book is an avatar of consumer driven by convenience. A regular decent person, but without the kind of fortitude to resist the lure of the new gadgetry, and the siren call of status. In The Circle, the film, her role is played by Emma Watson– and as soon as I heard that, I knew they changed it from the book. Turns out I was right. They pull the punch, in the film. It turns out the heroine is heroic after all, and thwarts the Circle’s plans for global domination.

    Anyway. The big theme here in this Artemis vs Martian seems to be a desire for the author to not typecast himself. And in so doing, perhaps, he may have alienated some of the audience that flocked to him in the first place, such as first respondent, Tom.

    What was “fresh” about the Martian was how old-school it seemed to be. Here’s a dude facing problems, and he’s going to solve them using Science, Science applied for good. And while it’s easy to say we live in an age of Scientism, I think it’s also fair to say that the trope of the Scientist adventurer from the golden age of SF isn’t quite hip these days. We’re in post-cyberpunk territory, with supernational corporations doing shady work splicing nature into abominations of genes and circuitry. The environment is defiled on an industrial scale. Reason and competence are oppressive tools of the colonizer.

    It seems though Andy Weir has gone away from that aesthetic for the second book, and more into something that’s not too different from the noir atmosphere of cyberpunk. OTOH, he seems to have been savvy enough to keep some libertarian sensibility about him– and, I’d guess, it’s libertarians mostly who cling to the kind of aesthetics of the golden age SF science hero, so maybe Weir made the right gamble, on the whole. Time will tell.

    Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m inclined to agree. Yes — a movie version might well mellow the heroine in exactly that way. (Especially if she’s played by Emma Watson.) And I do think Weir wanted to avoid being typecast, or at least getting into a rut — he said something much like that in the interviews.

      I like the comparison to cyberpunk — that’s the direction in which Weir moves away from the “old school” model. I think he succeeds in not going *too* far in that direction; Artemis isn’t a dystopia, just a trifle decadent. While I’m very fond of the old-style scientist-adventurer, I had a good time with the Artemis crew as well.

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