Andy Weir made it big with The Martian, a survival story about an astronaut abandoned on Mars. The Martian is a very individualized book, focusing mostly on the exploits of a single person, with brief interludes to small teams at NASA and in space.
Artemis is a very different sort of story. Like The Martian, it is set at some unspecified point in the future, probably still the mid-to-late 21st Century. But instead of an astronaut alone on a planet, Artemis is the tale of a smuggler trying to pay off her debts in the first Lunarian city. It may only be about 2000 people, but they’re packed in tight. That itself is a very different sort of setting.
It’s also a different sort of conflict. Mark Watney was trapped on Mars essentially by accident. Jasmine Bashara is paying a much more dangerous game: industrial sabotage for one of the richest people on the Moon, who wants to steal a government contract from even richer people on the Moon. Well, what passes for a government contract. Artemis doesn’t really have a coherent political structure, or even a real currency. Transactions are conducted in soft-landed grams, or slugs, which are basically a credit with the megacorporation that set up the lunar colony in the first place.
That turns out to be a significant plot point. Slugs aren’t real currency, and aren’t monitored as such. Criminal organizations from Earth exploit this little fact to launder money on Luna, with marginally-profitable aluminum production as a front. They aren’t happy when Jasmine destroys several of their ore collectors. Barely making it back into the city, she’s suddenly on the run from—not the law, exactly, but definitely from the mob. Her employer is brutally murdered and she realizes her family is in danger. She goes into hiding and asks her estranged father to do the same.
As Jazz tries to figure out what’s going on, she realizing that money-laundering was just the beginning. That story could be told anywhere, but this is Artemis, the only city outside Earth’s gravity well. The real MacGuffin in a new technology, worth at least billions of dollars, that can’t be manufactured in a high-gravity environment. If the cartels get control of its production, then Luna will be in their pocket, forever.
She assembles an unusual team to finish the job of taking down Sanchez Aluminum. An ESA scientist, the chief of the EVA guild (which tried to prevent her from making it into the city), an ex-friend (who let her back in despite his better judgement), and her father, a career welder. With the tacit blessing of Artemis’ chief executive, they plot to shut down the Sanchez Aluminum facility directly.
It’s a relatively simple plan: scare the staff out of the smelting facility, breach the dome’s hull, trick the control system into thinking the smelter is undertemperature, and let it overheat trying to compensate. Once the facility is out of commission, Sanchez Aluminum will lose their power-for-oxygen contract, killing their profitability. Jazz’s erstwhile employer had a large reserve of oxygen and machinery built up, and his orphaned daughter will step in with the same offer to take over supplying the city in exchange for unlimited free power.
Okay, maybe it’s not a that simple of a plan. And, this being fiction, something has to go wrong. Most of the Sanchez Aluminum employees evacuate per plan, but one doesn’t. Loretta Sanchez, mastermind of the company, thinks she can resolve a little toxic gas alarm by herself. Jazz realizes that Sanchez has no idea what’s about to happen to her prized smelter, and barely manages to force her into the jerry-rigged airlock.
As they head back for the city, they realize there’s a problem. No one is answering the radio. Sanchez runs through the possible products of the smelter explosion and figures out that a massive amount of chloroform has entered the city’s air supply, incapacitating the entire population. Contrary to the movies, chloroform kills after about an hour of exposure. They’re on the clock.
The next thirty minutes are complication-tastic and I won’t try to summarize them. Long story short, Jazz has to head outside to open up the oxygen tanks, and can’t do it in the tourist pressure suit she donned in haste. (They’re called hamster balls for a reason.) She punctures the suit to get leverage, fully expecting to die in the process.
She wakes up in the city medical center, with the sort of radiation and heat burns one would expect after being exposure to the vacuum of space and lunar surface. Her EVA partners managed to get her inside before hypoxia did permanent damage, and the city is more-or-less saved. No one died of chloroform poisoning, and the low gravity prevented any fatal injuries.
The mob may have been deactivated in Artemis, but Jazz is still on the hook for a variety of crimes. The head administrator intends to deport her to Earth, which wouldn’t quite be a death sentence, but not exactly a good outcome for our protagonist.
Jazz manages to strike a deal. She’s the dominant smuggler in Artemis, and always keeps careful control over what comes in. Without her, less scrupulous characters will step in to satisfy demand. In exchange, she gives the city a “‘Deport-Jazz for Free’ card”, a confession to her various offenses which they can use if she breaks an official rule again.
By this point, she’s paid off her debt: a new workshop for her father with the equipment and material stock destroyed in a fire Jazz started during her irresponsible teenage years. That costs about half the fee she’d earned for taking down Sanchez Aluminum. Artemis takes the rest, in the form of a “voluntary donation” since they don’t technically have fines. From an economic standpoint, she’s back to square one.
Socially, it’s a different story. A lot of Artemisians are unhappy with her, but she’s also earned a lot of trust back from her friends and family. It’s also strongly implied that she’s going to start dating her scientist friend, though that isn’t definite.
I’ve seen some criticism of Weir’s decision to write a female narrator. Some have even gone so far as asking whether he’s talked to a woman. According to the acknowledgements, he has, and I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt of this. Just because a particular male-written female character feels unnatural to you doesn’t mean she’s unbelievable. Personally, I find plenty of male-written male characters unrelatable.
There’s a lot of different ways to be a human. The space of possible minds is bigger than anyone can possibly imagine, and our experiences are not universal. It’s totally absurd to demand that someone raised in a totally different culture and community to duplicate my own mental architecture. Sure, there’s general principles to get right, but details? Impossible. It’s called speculative fiction for a reason, and seeing coherent mind-models different from my own is part of why I enjoy it.
Some may be tempted to compare Artemis to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but I would caution against that. Yes, they’re both stories about lunar communities coming into their own, but Artemis has dramatically less social and political theorizing. Displaying some trace of economic comprehension doesn’t automatically make it a libertarian novel, just a more satisfying one.
In the end, Weir managed to write a science fiction thriller without firing a single raygun, blaster, or bullet. Instead, he manages to tell a very human tale through very real science. I know some people find that tedious, but I enjoyed it. The worldbuilding is adequate, though of course I have a hundred questions about Artemis and society on Terra that will probably never be answered. But if Weir does decides to set another book there, I’m guaranteed to read it.