One of the hallmark tropes of the Golden Age of Science Fiction is colonies on the moon. You couldn’t swing a cat in a lunar lander without hitting a 1950s moon colony. Artemis reminds me a lot in vibe and atmosphere of these books, like what Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress could have been if we had more accurate knowledge of lunar and astro chemistry and physics in the 1950s. That’s not to say that it’s similar in style or to say it’s better—rather, Andy Weir captures some of the themes and ideas that Golden Age SF explored with these tropes. Artemis examines how the economy of a moon colony might work (or not) and its hypothetical relationship with organizations back on Earth, but with reference to semi-rigorous ideas about available resources and actual challenges of life on the moon.
Let’s start with the elephant. I feel sorry for Weir, because the success of The Martian has heaped impossible expectations upon Artemis. There is just no way it can live up to that first book. Indeed, I’m going to dodge this discussion by declaring Artemis neither better nor worse than The Martian, merely different. I suspect that some people will prefer the former, and some people will prefer the latter. In achieving difference, though, I think Weir has managed the best possible scenario. Nothing is worse than trying to bottle the same lightning with one’s second book.
Both The Martian and Artemis feature extremely competent protagonists who are happy to explain clever science-based gambits to the reader. In some respects, both Mark Watney and Jazz Bashara are fighting for their survival in inimical environments, although one is slightly more isolated than the other. That’s about where the similarities end, however. The Martian is a pure survival thriller, and I’d argue it’s slightly less enjoyable than Artemis simply because the outcome is either “he dies” or “he survives”—it isn’t all that complex. In contrast, Artemis is an intricate economical thriller, and that is much more the science fiction I enjoy. I can totally see how other people would come to the reverse conclusion (but those people are wrong—er, differently minded).
I’m ambivalent about Jazz’s involvement with Trond Landquivst, both her motivations and the nature of her commission. It’s not quite a “thief with a heart of gold” type mission; it is very self-serving and at the very least amoral. But I guess that’s what makes her interesting and gives her a redemptive ark. She’s somewhat like Peter Quill in this regard: she certainly thinks she’s all that, even while she’s flunking EVA mastery tests.
Weir’s characterization and creation of a voice for Jazz are, neither of them, particularly deft. His writing skills haven’t developed markedly from The Martian. But this is even more evident now that he’s writing a non-white, non-male protagonist. Jazz is basically a textbook example of a man trying to write a woman narrator who is confident in her sexuality and her independence, trying to make her a smartass, and failing so hard I, a dude, must cringe.
It’s a shame, because this mars an otherwise interesting plot. In particular, I love how well Weir uses the various minor characters—the way Bob, Dale, and even Kevin all have these roles to play that ultimately intersect with Jazz’s final, self-determined mission. Weir keeps raising the stakes, transforming what is originally a selfish mission by Jazz into something that will determine the future of her entire home. The fact she keeps making spectacular mistakes along the way only makes it more interesting.
I suspect that if you liked The Martian, you will also like Artemis, whether or not you agree with my comparison of the two, above. Artemis has different goals and a very different atmosphere to it, however, and in my opinion that’s all to the good. Aside from the clunky voice of the main character, this novel has a solid plot, an excellent setting, and the kind of science-based storytelling that Weir likes to infuse into his books. I’m quite pleased that he was not a one-hit wonder.