Saturday, April 21, 2018

Book Review - Artemis

With the wild success of Andy Weir's first book, The Martian, it was no surprise that he would write another book and it was even less of a surprise that people clamored for their copies of his follow up novel Artemis. I was intrigued to read his next offering but I lagged the rabid fans and am 'finally' reading Artemis about 6 months after release.

For readers comparing Artemis to The Martian, they will find some similarities and some differences. Weir maintained the snarky, sarcastic style and wit of his main character along with plenty of scientific explanation and information throughout the story. He also works to maintain a balance of action and suspense. The main differences come in terms of the story structure and plot flow. As I was reading the novel, part of me kept wanting to compare it with the plot of The Martian and by doing this I found myself discounting Artemis. Once I separated the plot of the two novels and only compared them in terms of style and tone, I gave Artemis a fairer shake.

Rather than spending a "man versus nature" story of Astronaut Watney stranded on Mars trying to survive, we have a "man (woman) vs. man" novel. Our main character, Jazz Bashara, lives in the populated moon city of Artemis. And Artemis should certainly be classified a city rather than a "space station" or "moon base." The later terms would evoke thoughts of space shuttle or space station missions of recent years where human populations are in the single- or low double-digit values. Artemis is a city of 2000 people with a bustling economy and many human dymanics. Jazz works as a porter, delivering goods to various portions of the city but also using her legitimate job as the perfect cover for her more lucrative job as a smuggler of contraband goods. Thus, the human interactions become critical to the plot in a way that seldom happened in The Martian.

While this is definitely a sci-fi adventure novel, in some sense it felt almost like a "space noir" novel. It vaguely reminded me of the pulp fiction or hard-boiled detective novels of the early 20th century (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, etc., who if you haven't read, do yourself a favor and check them out). Even though it's set in the moon and full of plenty of sci-fi elements (with a little extra focus on the "sci" part), this boils down to an adventure novel with the protagonist caught in a hazardous plot between smugglers, gangsters, cops and business folks.

Many of the plot elements could be traced over to some of the classic clichés of detective noir of the ~1930s. From chase scenes on foot and in vehicles (though modified for sci-fi settings) to sneaky hand-offs in the park or hanging out in the bar, a lot of moments could potentially be set in 1920s Chicago or San Francisco, if not for the lunar landscape. At times, the characters felt a little cliché as well. From the "by the books" cop to the shady politician to the greedy and corrupt businessman with his innocent and troubled daughter, these are the sort of characters you might expect to see. Our main character, Jazz, is a bit more fleshed out beyond her stereotypical elements.

Jazz is the "caught in a hard place" protagonist trying to make her way in the world through underhanded means party because she's good at it and partly to spite the expectations of others. There's a fair amount of commentary on her promiscuity although she tries to downplay it. She mainly seems motivated by a desire for wealth (though there is the mystery of her need for a VERY specific sum of money). While Jazz certainly isn't innocent, she is forced to try and clear her name while avoiding people trying to kill her and those she loves.

As I mentioned early on, I enjoyed the sarcastic character from The Martian and had fun seeing Jazz carry on the similar attitude. Since Watney (in The Martian) was largely talking to himself, he had plenty of opportunities to be snarky without having to worry about human interaction or ongoing conversation. Jazz (in Artemis) has a fair amount of time when she's alone trying to figure out what to do but she's also interacting with other people quite a lot. As a result, her snarky attitude turns into ongoing conversations with other characters. In short snippets this worked out well but over longer segments the conversations felt a bit forced and stilted.

On the whole, the story was interesting and generally fun to read. As you might expect, some of the plot twists and resolutions were a little hard to swallow even with the in-depth scientific explanations working to validate the happenings. The science narrative helped suspend disbelief on the elements directly involving the science (such as the welding or the chemistry) but the same care wasn't taken with some of the over-the-top antics of our characters during chase, fight and other action scenes. A lot of the plot and schemes felt overly complicated and some of the characterizations and conversations felt a little cliché or forced.

Still, I enjoyed the book overall and would recommend it to those who enjoy a good adventure novel. The blending of a classic suspense/murder/conspiracy adventure with a sci-fi story could help reach a wider audience. Sci-fi readers will enjoy the lunar setting and space elements. Detective/noir readers will enjoy the character interactions and subversive plot. Fans of The Martian may find themselves a little divided depending on what it is they liked about the earlier book. Overall, I found it to be an entertaining follow-up to Weir's earlier book. It's not my "book of the year", but it was a delightsome diversion that straddles the sci-fi and adventure fences nicely.

3 out of 5 stars

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