Artemis, the latest from The Martian author Andy Weir, is an aggressively fine book. It’s a perfectly competent paint-by-numbers heist caper with a perfectly likable heroine and a perfectly readable, breezy voice, all adding up to a perfectly fine reading experience. Two days after I read it, I remembered very little of its plot, and if you asked me how it was, my default response would be, “Oh, fine.”
But there are a few moments when Artemis elevates itself out of the workmanlike competence that otherwise keeps it ticking along like perfectly fine clockwork. Whenever Weir gets to go into the nitty-gritty of a science fiction engineering problem — how to ignite a blowtorch in a vacuum, how to weld aluminum in low gravity — Artemis lights up and briefly becomes deeply, profoundly compelling. That’s because Weir is a process nerd, and processes are what truly interest him; by extension, when he dwells on process is when the book becomes truly interesting.
Artemis’s plot provides the framework for engineering thought experiments
Jasmine Bashar — Jazz for short — has lived on the moon colony Artemis since she was 6 years old. She’s a porter who makes just enough money to rent out a coffin-size living compartment, and she supplements her income with petty smuggling, sneaking boxes of fine cigars to the wealthy few who can afford to live lavishly on the moon.
Jazz is saving up for a special, mysterious purpose — so when one of her regular customers offers to pay her millions if she can help him pull off something a little more criminal, she jumps at the chance. All she has to do is help him sabotage the anorthite harvesters owned by one of Artemis’s aluminum factories.
You may have noticed that Artemis’s sea of clichéd generalities just got real specific in that last sentence. This is where the heart of the book lies: in the nitty-gritty process details. Why would an aluminum factory establish itself on the moon? What raw materials would it need, and how could it most efficiently process them? What would be the best way to sabotage its equipment, especially in a low-gravity vacuum? Weir lives for this stuff. The rest of the book exists only to create a framework for the engineering thought experiments, and it shows.
So Jazz breezes through the narrative with paper-thin characterization, periodically reminding us that she is a woman of Saudi Arabian descent via her habit of checking out Saudi gossip blogs, but without otherwise distinguishing herself in any meaningful way from the hero of The Martian — or, for that matter, from Weir’s public persona. She goes through her predictable heist without a single beat of it feeling surprising or remarkable, accompanied by the types of characters who traditionally help out the hero during a heist: the lovably nerdy tech dude, the money, the muscle.
And yet Artemis sort of gets away with it by virtue of having so much fun geeking out over how best to break into a vacuum-sealed double hull from the outside.
But only sort of. As compelling as Artemis’s engineering passages are, they are not memorable enough to overcome the staleness everywhere else. So while I’ll remember for a long time the image of Jazz jury-rigging a hammock to hold her under one of the anorthite harvesters while she sets about breaking it down, the rest of the book is so vague and unmemorable that all I can say about it, really, is that it was fine.