Andy Weir’s Artemis succeeds in telling a fast-paced, well-plotted tale, but this sci-fi heist story ultimately suffers from underdeveloped characters, unnecessary juvenile humor, and a largely absent antagonist.
Artemis has a great hook; a heist caper set on a future lunar colony. We’re introduced to a plucky heroine named Jazz Bashara, 26, a Saudi Arabian who grew up on the moon. Jazz is testing to become a guild member to gain lucrative work leading tours. During her qualifying test her suit fails, she fails, and now she can’t retake the test for another 6 months.
Jazz works as a porter and as a cargo smuggler on the side for clients like Trond Landvik, a Norwegian telecom mogul who lives with his daughter Lene, who was paralyzed in a childhood accident.
A Brazilian company named Sanchez Aluminum has a deal to provide Artemis with oxygen in exchange for free power, which is the most expensive part of the smelting process that produces aluminum and oxygen as a natural byproduct. If Sanchez stops supplying oxygen to Artemis, they’ll be in breach of contract, giving Trond an in to take over the contract. Trond has been hoarding oxygen, buying it up from Sanchez in small amounts with the intention of using it to take over when Sanchez fails.
At Trond’s house to hear an offer, Jazz meets a man named Jin Chu, who carries an item of great value inside a case. When Jin leaves, Trond asks Jazz to stop Sanchez’s oxygen production by sabotaging the harvesters Sanchez uses to get the rocks that they smelt. She’ll be paid well if she succeeds. Jazz gets what she needs to pull this caper off, but she’s discovered after destroying the first harvester. She destroys three others before escaping her pursuers and returning to Artemis undetected.
She gets a message to meet Trond, but when she goes to his house she finds Trond and his bodyguard murdered. She seeks out Jin Chu and they agree to meet. Jin admits to giving the Brazilian crime syndicate (O PALÁCIO) that owns Sanchez Aluminum their names, and who have killed Trond as revenge for the sabotage. Jazz outwits Jin and an attacker named Alvarez, taking the valuable item that Jin carried with him.
This item, the ZAFO fiber-optic cable, will eliminate the need for expensive repeaters to boost signals. Every telecom company in the world will want to upgrade to this cable. This is a multi-billion dollar invention that will revitalize Artemis with both industry and population growth. O Palácio knows this and isn’t ready to give up so easily.
Trond had met with Artemis Administrator Ngugi to work out a deal to replace O Palácio’s role in providing oxygen to Artemis. Trond knew about ZAFO for months and wanted a sample, which is what Jin Chu brought him, but Jin sold him out. O Palácio realized they were poised to corner a multi-billion dollar agency and they were all in. But they only had one enforcer (Alvarez) on site.
O Palácio has more of their people on the way. If they get there, they will own silicon production and the oxygen for power contract and will control Artemis like Al Capone controlled Chicago in the 1920’s. Jazz takes action. She’ll never get to the last harvester, so she decides to destroy the smelter, stopping the oxygen production.
Jazz visits Lene, Trond’s daughter, enrolling her in the plan to stop Sanchez Aluminum’s oxygen production, forcing O Palácio to sell the company to Lene or she will undercut their prices with free power and bankrupt them. Lene agrees to cooperate with the plan.
Jazz meets with her allies and reveals her plan to sabotage the smelter. They balk at the plan, but Jazz tells them it’s their only real chance to help decide what kind of city Artemis is going to be. They can’t let O Palácio take over. Despite their misgivings, everyone gets on board.
With help from her allies, Jazz unwittingly causes a situation that releases chloroform into the air supply. She has an hour before she kills everyone in the city. Jazz gets the air back on, but it’s not enough. Trond’s hoard of oxygen is connected though, and nearby. Jazz gets there using a hamster ball used for tourists, but even with Dale’s assistance, Jazz can’t open the air supply without puncturing her ball and sacrificing herself. She does. The air is on, and all are saved.
Jazz is saved by her allies before she dies. She’s given the money that Trond promised her by Lena, which she uses to right some earlier wrongs. Jazz sets out to track down Jin Chu to find out who he works for. They’re going to invest all of their money in the company that makes ZAFO before it goes public and makes a fortune.
Weir is notable for his ability to explain scientific jargon in plain English for all of us non-scientists, and he does it to great effect here. His scientific explanations were clear, concise, and thorough. My only real gripe with the book is that I wish he’d been as thorough explaining the characters.
Every story needs a strong antagonist, and I wasn’t always sure who that was. Was it Rudy the cop? Trond? Alvarez? Jin Chu? Administrator Ngugi? O Palácio? The EVA Masters? It’s never clear. The best part of a strong antagonist? They’re physically present in the story. Not so here.
A big part of heist and caper novels is the ragtag band of misfits our hero assembles to pull off the job. These particular misfits leaned toward one-dimensional stereotypes (the wacky inventor, the gay best friend) and might have been developed into something interesting if less time was spent on things like welding, an unseen pen pal whose only real purpose was as a deux ex machina, or having your 26-year-old heroine make jokes like she’s a 14-year-old boy. I wanted to like these characters more than I did. I wanted more. I needed more.
Artemis was a fun, fast-paced read, but a better book will stay with me longer than this one will. Too bad.