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.
On 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.
In 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.
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.
There’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
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.