With his first published novel, The Martian, Andy Weir blinded us with science. It’s no secret to say that the story’s massive success was due to his factual yet fascinating explanation of how someone could plausibly survive on Mars. In Artemis, Weir tries to evolve to a new level of storytelling, but the changes are unfortunately not for the better.
In the book, Artemis is the first city not built on Earth, but the moon. The main character is Jazz, a slick, down-on-her-luck smuggler who grew up there. Eventually, she’s given an opportunity to make a lot of money by pulling off a dangerous heist. She, of course, takes it, but suffice it to say things don’t go very well.
Jazz may be the star of Weir’s story but the star of the book is Artemis itself. Weir did a mind-numbing amount of research of how a city on the surface of the Moon could actually be possible, and any time he’s describing it, it’s utterly mesmerising. Every detail, from the laws, to the atmosphere, the economy, security, tourism – it’s all here, carefully spread across the first third of the story. It feels almost like walking through a time-machine into the near future and it’s a blast.
Through all of that setup, Jazz is a welcome tour-guide. She provides the reader with an on-the-ground perspective of Artemis as well as relating the facts and science behind it. She’s also an underdog; she may live on the Moon, but she’s got it tough, and that struggle is very human and relatable.
Things take a turn for the worse, though, once Jazz starts the heist. Of course, there’s no book without the heist, but everything that comes after is so much less interesting than getting there. Every trope from every heist story you’ve ever heard is here and it’s a bore. There are good guys, bad guys, cops, femme fatales, investigations, double crosses, lying, you name it. Weir is basically just rehashing an old, pulp detective story, but on the Moon. The plot of the book is much, much less captivating than its setting.
As Artemis gets more and more plot-driven and less and less interesting, Jazz becomes less interesting, too. Weir obviously took great care to try and make his lead character a believable, realistic, complex woman. But it’s very hit or miss, and as he starts to unleash all the heist elements, Jazz becomes less a character and more a device. She goes from interesting heroine to bland protagonist and it’s just another way Weir shifts the focus away from the best things in the book.
Thankfully, once the book reaches its finale, the chemistry and physics that made the introduction to Artemis so entertaining become a central element again. Heck, there are even times when Weir might get too detailed or too involved for a casual reader, but at least it feels like its distinctly his voice, and the book is better when it’s clear who is writing it. It’s just disappointing that, for a good portion of the book, that voice is largely missing.
When your first book is as successful and well-known as The Martian, it’s inevitable that your follow-up will be compared to it, so here goes: Artemis is not nearly as good as The Martian. Parts of it come close but it falters when Weir tries to take a step forward as a writer. When the story is focused and simple, like The Martian, it works. But when there are multiple characters and large action sequences, it doesn’t.
One understands why Weir tried to do more in a second novel and that he doesn’t want to keep writing the same story over and over again. But in attempting to broaden his horizons, he lost some of what makes him special… and readable. As a result, Artemis is a ho-hum, forgettable story with a killer, unforgettable setting.