Review: Artemis

Andy Weir’s Artemis has the same vibe as The Martian so I expected to enjoy it for all the same reasons, but many of The Martian‘s strengths become pitfalls when they are repurposed in Artemis. Summary from Goodreads:

Jazz Bashara is a criminal.
Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you’re not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you’ve got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent.
Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she’s stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself—and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first.

Jazz is Mark Watney (the main character in The Martian). Not only does Mark’s voice make for a poorly-written woman, but his personality doesn’t suit Jazz’s situation. His endless internal chatter worked for someone alone on Mars—he didn’t have anyone to talk to—but why does Jazz speak the same way when she’s surrounded by others? Her long tangents, musings, and science lessons interrupt dialogue and reduce the supporting cast to yes-men. There’s little for anyone else to do but sit back while Jazz banters with the reader.

If Artemis preceded The Martian, it would be easier to evaluate Jazz without thinking of her as Mark-lite. Unfortunately, she suffers for the comparison because she’s half as clever and relies on her feminine wiles at all the wrong times:

In this scene, Jazz has just been asked to sabotage some machinery in exchange for more money than she’s ever had in her life. The machinery is new to her, but she studies it to discover its weakness. And then:
“Okay,” I finally said. “I have a plan.”
“Yeah?” Trond dropped a socket driver and scurried over. “Do tell.”
I shook my head. “Don’t worry about the details.”
“I like details.”
“A lady’s got to have her secrets.” I stood up. “But I’ll completely destroy their harvesters.”
“That sounds great!”

That sounds great is what I say when someone says, “I’ll have that report for you after lunch.” It is not what anyone would say in response to I know your entire fortune is riding on this, but A LADY’S GOT TO HAVE HER SECRETS.

The real reason Jazz has secrets is because Weir is hiding her cards from the reader to build suspense. He partially succeeds. The sabotage scene is briefly suspenseful when Jazz brings the wrong tools for the job (darn details) and can’t spark a flint in a vacuum. Don’t fret, Dear Reader! She remembers in time to lecture about oxidation while building a workaround.

Question: Why does Jazz forget to bring proper tools for her secret plan?
Answer: Artemis doesn’t have a plot. It’s an after-school special where the host says things like “Look at this flint, boys and girls, it won’t make a spark and I’m going to tell you why.”

Unlike in The Martian where all the experiments worked toward one goal (leaving Mars), the end goal in Artemis isn’t immediately clear. There are some machinations by power-hungry rich people, some techno-babble, and a whole lot of contrivances built around Jazz’s awesomeness—no joke, most of the climax is caused by her welding abilities being too perfect.

I liked the concept of Artemis, the international city on the moon that uses weight as currency, but this idea has more wasted potential than payoff. Jazz tells us it’s the first truly international city, but it’s written to feel less multi-cultural than a midsize city in the U.S. Weir’s reliance on cultural stereotypes makes Jazz’s world narrow. He gets points for a diverse cast, but it feels less like representation and more like pandering when the characters’ actions are governed by shallow assumptions. This criticism extends to Jazz—Weir can say she’s a woman as often as he likes, but she never stops being Mark. Fortunately, every time I slipped up and started imagining Mark in her predicament, there was a reference to her sex life or something like: “I giggled like a little girl. Hey, I’m a girl, so I’m allowed.”

If you read the first couple of chapters and it doesn’t bother you that a 26-year-old woman speaks like a 15-year-old boy—keep reading, you’ll have fun. But if it bugs you then bail early—it doesn’t get better.

Overall: 1.5 (out of 5) Every book gets at least a point. No matter how badly a book is written, the author still wrote an entire book. It’s like how everyone gets points for writing their name on the SAT.

This means Artemis joins the ranks of North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Russell’s Sleep Donation, and Chabon’s The Final Solution as one of the lowest-scoring books on this site. Every time I think about the low scorers I consider shaving a point from The Night Circus because that actually is my least favorite book here.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Crown Publishing (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

Review: The Martian

the_martian_coverI need to reread the end of Andy Weir’s The Martian. It kept me up late on a work night. Around 1:00am, I decided to start skimming or else I’d risk falling asleep at work. The timer on my Kindle said there was approximately 45 minutes remaining and I hesitated. The train portion of my commute is roughly 45 minutes so I thought: Perfect. I can finish on the train now. Then I thought: I can’t wait until I’m on the train. What if I can’t read then? Sometimes Metro is too packed to hold a Kindle. This book could not wait.

The Martian is primarily given in first-person narration and long segments are presented as Mark Watney’s log book to chronicle his time on Mars. His mission was scrubbed after a fierce windstorm blew up. He was injured in the storm, but his crew believed he was dead and left without him. Mark isn’t bitter about this; he knows his crew had good reason to think he’d died and remains cautiously hopeful. If he can survive the next four years, he can catch a ride home with the next Ares mission.

Fortunately, Mark is a botanist and engineer. He was sent with a small amount of bacteria-rich dirt from Earth and seeds to test whether anything can be grown. NASA also sent whole potatoes for the crew to prepare themselves a real Thanksgiving dinner. Alone, Mark chops and plants these potatoes, building a little farm inside his habitat. I know some reviewers disliked the longer, technical passages, but these sections were my favorite. I loved seeing how his mind worked to solve a growing list of problems: how to find increased surface area for his potato farm, how to increase his supply of dirt, how to maximize his potatoes, how to make water, oxygen, and CO2, on and on. Nothing on Mars is simple or easy.

The technical passages are also necessary to bolster the occasional dumbed-down portions. Some lines are written in such a way as to both insult the reader and lower the presumed intelligence of the narrator:

I stumbled up the hill toward the Hab. As I crested the rise, I saw something that made me very happy and something that made me very sad: The Hab was inact (yay!) and the MAV was gone (boo!). (6)

What an awful use of parentheticals! It’s like he forgot that he already explained the functions of the Hab and MAV and doesn’t trust the reader to sort out the implications. It wasn’t until he started up with the math/chemistry/farm talk that I felt comfortable taking him seriously. It’s a real skill to make chemistry understandable to a layman. Mark explains his math without sounding like he’s talking down to the reader by saying things like: I can get x amount of water this way, which is half of what I’ll need… Even if you don’t understand the numbers he’s throwing around, you can still appreciate what they mean for his situation.

Mark is also quite funny:

As usual, I’m working with stuff that was deliberately designed not to burn. But no amount of careful design by NASA can get around a determined arsonist with a tank of pure oxygen. (160)

It’s impossible to not love him a little. He’s endlessly clever and inventive. He remains in good spirits, even when it doesn’t make sense for him to be. He could have had many sad-sack, hopeless moments without risk of becoming a Debbie Downer. The seriousness of the situation and his natural humor buy him a lot of reader patience, but it’s just not a depressing sort of book. It’s about discovery and the inherent excitement of space travel:

Everywhere I go, I’m the first. Step outside the rover? First guy ever to be there! Climb a hill? First guy to climb that hill! Kick a rock? That rock hasn’t moved in a million years! (99)

Overall: 4.5 I wanted the end to be more… Also, there are a couple weird sections that skip to an outside perspective, like that of a camera, and some of these work better than others. The scenes with Mark on Mars are the best; the rest feel like their dialog has been pulled from every sci-fi movie ever.

Translation: READ IT. Start it early though. Me and the husband were both up til 1:30 on a work/school night and the next day was rough.