An Economy Is a Living Thing: Andy Weir’s “Artemis”
By Chris PakDecember 2, 2017
Artemis by Andy Weir
A near-future thriller set on a lunar colony of the same name, Artemis introduces us to narrator Jasmine Bashara, or Jazz, a porter down on her luck whose smuggling monopoly provides most of her income. Motivated by wealth, Jazz aspires to join the ranks of the guild-approved lunar tour guides, but her predilection for cutting corners and her reluctance to abide by rules — whether the tour guild’s, the colony’s, or her father’s — lead them to reject her. Wealthy smuggling client Trond Landvik, however, soon provides her with a job opportunity offering compensation beyond her wildest dreams: the sabotage of the anorthite harvesters that the Sanchez Aluminum corporation uses to generate oxygen for smelting and to supply the Artemis colony. Once these harvesters have been disabled, Trond plans to step in and provide his secret stockpile of oxygen, positioning him to steal Sanchez’s contract over aluminum production.
While such a contract is itself a valuable asset, Trond has other motives for establishing a stranglehold on refining aluminum. However, his machinations do not go unnoticed, and Trond’s rivals plot his assassination, plunging Jazz into a world of political intrigue that centers on a mysterious object known as ZAFO. To cover up her involvement in the sabotage, Jazz begins her own investigation into Trond’s murder and the mystery of ZAFO, enlisting a variety of friends and acquaintances along the way.
Artemis uses the procedural form to unveil the social and political problems of living on another cosmic body, marking a significant departure from The Martian’s optimism toward space colonization. Fans of Weir’s brand of science fictional problem solving will find much to satisfy them in Artemis, but the novel goes farther than those concrete issues, revitalizing The Martian’s survival logic within the constraints of a lunar colony. Weir situates Artemis in a wider social context, then reveals the underlying economic and power structures that make that social context possible. Jazz’s own poverty, for example, allows readers to see the side of space colonization that many would prefer to forget. Artemis actually undermines the utopian dreams of liberty and wealth associated with a near-future expansion into space.
Unlikely hero Jazz, the prodigal daughter of an immigrant from Saudi Arabia, identifies as uniquely Artemisian, and her genius, connections, scientific acumen, and entrepreneurial spirit equip her perfectly for life on the Moon. Nevertheless, her father and peers believe she has squandered her opportunity to contribute to colony life and make a name for herself. She serves as the perfect protagonist for Weir, able to parse both the scientific aspects of life on the Moon as well as its political and economic realities, and to manipulate them to her advantage.
While a scientifically literate, independent, and strong brown woman as a protagonist is a welcome development in any novel, moments of implausibility regarding her character do raise eyebrows. In one scene, Jazz successfully wears a niqab to infiltrate a tour group and gain access to the Moon’s surface, despite having personal relationships with many of the guild’s tour guides. Fidelis Ngugi, the colony’s administrator, stresses the absurdity of that ploy later, but this self-aware acknowledgment doesn’t counteract the implausibility of her success. Even less realistically, Jazz states that she never forgets anything, an ability that justifies the narrative’s allusions to Star Trek, which by the time of the novel would be a 100 years old and culturally irrelevant. Whether or not we take her claim seriously, these references to Star Trek feel like a clunky nod to fans of the franchise, and are especially out of place when her coincidental knowledge becomes essential to the plot.
Artemis’s real interest is in the geography of the colony, its functions, and its bases of production and exchange. “It’s always about economics, am I right?” Jazz asks the reader when she visits Life Support for a pickup and delivery job. The way the narrator addresses us as readers appropriately assumes that we are unfamiliar with Artemis and so, like the tour guide she aspires to be, Jazz takes us on a tour that lays bare the colony with which she is so familiar. Her job as a porter and her dealings as a smuggler bring her into contact with both the affluent and the deprived, and provide her access to a wide range of locations, making Jazz the best possible point of entry into the life of Artemis. We are allowed an insider’s view of the colony’s various institutions, including its policing, life support, businesses, guilds, and administrative and political functions. In examining all of these elements of society, the narrative is not concerned with addressing issues of equity and justice. It presents those issues as inevitable, inextricably tied to establishing a lunar colony, and endemic to establishing new civilizations in general. Instead of attempting changes that would close the wealth gap on Artemis and create more equitable relations, Jazz makes compromises to further her own aims without fundamentally changing the structures themselves. Artemis suggests that it is not in her or anyone else’s power to make those changes given the fragility of Artemis’s economy and the personal and monetary investment of its inhabitants.
The colony’s political and economic foundation, and its future constitution, provide the narrative’s central mysteries. Weir takes the opportunity to draw connections between the colony and Earth, highlighting how Artemis’s institutions mirror terrestrial dynamics of power and wealth. In the world of Artemis, the colony only exists because of the insight of former Kenyan economic minister Ngugi, now administrator of Artemis. Ngugi singlehandedly established the space industry in Kenya, an ideal site for interplanetary travel due to its equatorial location. Jazz’s lifelong pen pal and eventual smuggling partner Kelvin Otieno goes on to work for the KSC, the central authority overseeing Artemisian travel. Some chapters feature communications between Jazz and Otieno, providing snapshots of Jazz’s young life and of the hardships faced by those on Earth — hardships that the KSC are able and willing to exploit. The administrator capitalizes on exploitative relationships between corporations, illegal organizations, states, and individuals, tolerating injustices in order to found and maintain the lunar colony. For this reason, she tolerates and even protects Jazz and her smuggling ring, refusing to deport Jazz for her infractions.
The site of the original lunar landing of 1969, now a major tourist attraction for visitors to the Moon and a site of national interest for Artemis’s citizenry, serves as a fascinating nationalistic symbol. The American flag, Jazz notes ironically, lies buried under a layer of Moon dust, which protects it from being bleached by radiation but also obscures it, despite the location’s visibility as a monument to Artemis’s history. Jazz feels no connection to Earth, to her father’s country, or to any of the planet’s other institutions and interests. As a self-identified Artemisian, however, the site of the lunar landing fills her with pride for the colony and its history. The colonization of other planets will involve questions of nationalism, independence, and governance, and while the text draws attention to the fundamental economic dependence of Artemis to Earth, it also argues for economic independence as a necessity for long-term survival. Tellingly, the novel presents Artemis as a melting pot of people from diverse nations and traditions, in the tradition of science fiction that models space colonies after the colonization of America.
Artemis’s science fictional story of interplanetary colonization speaks to contemporary anxieties about public-private partnerships, corporate power, community, and belonging. The novel reflects on contemporary interest in space colonization and the exploitation of the Solar System’s natural resources, but it brings a skeptical perspective to the prevalent corporate optimism, and it challenges naïve views on societies’ economic foundations. Furthermore, positioning Kenya as the political center of the space industry, the narrative decenters North America and Europe as the gatekeepers to interplanetary colonization. Weir’s portrayal of a colony made up by diverse nations, and the centrality of diverse families in this diaspora, reminds readers that space colonization will be an international event. On a narrative level, Weir’s choice of a female protagonist enables a welcome departure from the hypermasculinity of The Martian. While it doesn’t offer something significantly new to lunar colonization narratives, Artemis extends the scope of Weir’s storytelling to encompass the social and economic relationships that shape the life of a community.
LARB Staff Recommendations
"Luna: New Moon" is the contemporary novel of permanently indebted humanity, burning with the desperate anxieties of our hyper-financialized age...
Margaret Lazarus Dean's "Leaving Orbit" is a deft and lyrical meditation on the last days of the NASA space shuttle program....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.