When your first novel is The Martian, what do you do for an encore?
The Martian was a freak of publishing. Andy Weir self-published it electronically in 2011; when brisk online sales caught the attention of the publishing industry and Hollywood, it went on to be a hardcover bestseller in 2014, and spawned a 2015 movie that grossed more than $630 million. While the book was weak on characterization and prose, it was full of humour and dramatic tension while remaining unapologetically geeky. It was terrific fun to read. (See my review.)
That’s a hell of an act to have to follow up on. Weir’s second novel, Artemis, is out today—published by Crown in the United States and Del Rey in the United Kingdom. And I have to say that while Artemis is a diverting enough read, I don’t expect it to bottle the same lightning its predecessor did.
The protagonist of Artemis is Jazz Bashara, a twentysomething resident of the lunar city of Artemis who despite her considerable talents ekes out a marginal existence by working as a porter and small-time smuggler, bringing in contraband items like cigars for the city’s wealthier residents. When one of her wealthy clients offers her a huge sum to carry out an act of industrial sabotage, Jazz jumps at the chance. When things go awry in typically Andy Weir fashion, which is to say, spectacular disasters in harsh extraterrestrial environments (“I took a moment to calculate how fucked I was” is perhaps the most Andy Weir sentence in existence), Jazz finds herself in danger from all sides.
Now. Those of you who’ve read The Martian will find some familiar pleasures: the humour, the characters repeatedly obliged to find rapid solutions to life-terminating catastrophes, that sort of thing. But it’s uneven, because Artemis is a very different book—a caper that involves protagonists and antagonists living in the aforementioned harsh extraterrestrial environment. You know, people.
For a writer not known for characterization, Weir took a big risk in making his protagonist a young lapsed-Muslim woman of Saudi descent. The risk does not necessarily pay off: Jazz doesn’t quite ring true. There are some awkward bits. Her sexuality is tossed about by other characters but isn’t necessary to the story; it seems gratuitous. And a Weir protagonist in the first person must be capable of giving infodumps on the fly (Weir doesn’t make use of incluing), which in Jazz’s hands1 seems contrived: it’s convenient that someone marginalized enough to be willing to take on shady work is as hypercompetent as an astronaut. Even foul-mouthed young smugglers turn out to be Mark Watney.
Another problem is class relations, which are handled, frankly, naively. A society that is absolutely ferocious in its economic stratification but apparently egalitarian in social relations is simply not plausible, even in a community of two thousand people.
All of which is to say that Weir’s strengths and weaknesses are readily apparent. Artemis as a built environment—as a work of engineering—is convincing. As a society, an economy, with businesses and cartels and politics and living breathing people who interact with one another, not so much. It feels like journeyman work. The worldbuilding is one-sided. While this is, make no mistake, a fun book, as a novel about life on the moon it falls short of classics like John M. Ford’s Growing Up Weightless.
But in the end that may not matter. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller—the guys who got fired from directing the Han Solo movie—are already working on a film version.
I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.
For another perspective on Artemis, see Niall Alexander’s review at Tor.com.