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Review: Artemis

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Artemis: A Novel
by Andy Weir
Crown, 2017
hardcover, 320 pp.
ISBN 978-0-553-44812-2

As previously noted here, there is often a close link between science fiction and spaceflight, with each inspiring and influencing the other (see “Review: Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities”, The Space Review, December 11, 2017). That was evident in the The Martian, the Andy Weir novel and later blockbuster movie about an astronaut stranded on Mars living by his wits (and his wisecracks) to stay alive long enough to be rescued. (see “Review: The Martian”, The Space Review, February 17, 2014). Once the popular book became a film, NASA was eager to provide its expertise and share in the publicity about the movie, comparing the fictional, if realistic, Mars expedition in the movie with NASA’s actual efforts to send people to the Red Planet (see The Martian and real Martians”, The Space Review, October 5, 2015).

While the setting may be different, the central character is familiar.

If Weir’s latest novel, Artemis, does become a movie (and the film rights were sold even before the book was published this fall), you probably won’t see a similar relationship with NASA, even with the agency’s redirection back to the Moon. Not because the novel is bad—it’s an entertaining read—but because in the novel there’s not much place for NASA or other space agencies. And if there was, it’s not clear they’d want to be linked to the goings-on at the lunar city the novel is named after.

The central character in Artemis is Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara, a young woman who has lived in Artemis since a little girl. Estranged from her father, a welder who moved with her to the lunar outpost from Saudi Arabia, she is eking out an existence there, primarily as a smuggler. This gets her involved with a plot to take over one of the companies operating there, and soon enough she’s in over her head, on the run from both criminals and what passes for law there.

Saying much more about the plot might spoil the adventure for a reader. Weir, like in The Martian, strives to make this book as hard a science-fiction novel as possible, rooted in facts and thoroughly researched science. There aren’t too many digressions from the text to explain the hows and whys of life on the Moon, with Weir letting them unspool with the plot.

While the setting may be different, the central character is familiar. Despite being a different gender and ethnicity, Jazz Bashara is a lot like The Martian’s Mark Watney. Both are smart, and smartasses: they are able to think on their feet when their lives are at risk, and when they need to deliver a putdown or comeback. The difference is that, in The Martian, Watney literally had a planet to himself for much of the book, with limited interaction with those back on Earth. By contrast, in Artemis Bashara is dealing with family, friends, adversaries, and others throughout the novel. Yes, when reading Artemis, you can help but think that Watney, in a similar situation, would often do—or say—something similar to Bashara.

It’s possible, although maybe not intended, to read Artemis as something of a cautionary tale of space commercialization.

The book is set in the latter half of the 21st century (the book is vague on dates, but the characters at one point refer to Star Trek being 100 years old), yet some aspects of the book seem like they’re not too distant from the present day. The characters make frequent use of “Gizmos,” which seem little advanced from present-day smartphones—maybe the iPhone L won’t be too different from the iPhone X. Moreover, an emerging technology that plays a role in the book, something intended to be new in the era the book is set, is actually very similar to something companies plan to test on the International Space Station in the next year. While being focused on technical accuracy, Weir perhaps didn’t think sufficiently far ahead.

It’s possible, although maybe not intended, to read Artemis as something of a cautionary tale of space commercialization. The lunar base was founded by a syndicate of companies, working from Kenya (which freed them from bureaucratic red tape, Weir writes, without going into details.) The city itself seems largely free of regulation, beyond those related to the safety of the facility itself. There’s no law enforcement beyond a single security officer, and people are largely free to do what they want, albeit with the prospect of mob justice from posses if they go too far. But that freedom of lunar libertarian paradise finds its limits in the novel. One character, near the end of the book, laments that the base will soon likely have to levy taxes to pay for essential services as it grows.

Unlike The Martian, a self-contained novel with no obvious sequel opportunities (it seems unlikely Watney would ever want to go back to Mars, after all), Artemis seems all set for a sequel, or even a series of books, featuring its motley cast of characters. Any future novels in this setting may be just as entertaining as this one. Just don’t count on NASA endorsing them as they prepare to return to the Moon.