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December 6, 2017

Last week I read Artemis, the new SF novel about life on Earth’s moon by Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian. It was not a good choice for a busy week because it’s a page-turner, much like his first novel. I kept trying to read it for “just a little while” and ended up staying up too late and regretting it the next morning. It is a good choice if you’re looking for a fast-paced adventure.

Let me just say that I have no idea why this author, so good at embedding the technical details of life in space in his fiction, would even try to make his first-person narrator female. Characterization is not his forte, and I didn’t find his teenage girl to be very girl-like, so I ignored references to her gender and love life and got on quite happily with the story.

Weir is such a good writer that he can make something like watching someone do welding interesting. It’s amazing. Here’s the suspense he creates when his main character, Jazz, needs to borrow welding equipment from her father without telling him what it’s for:
“’I need a torch, a couple tanks of acetylene, a tank of O2, and a mask.’
‘What about neon?’ he asked.
I winced. ‘Right, yeah. Neon, of course.’
‘You’re getting rusty,’ he said.
I didn’t need neon. But I couldn’t tell him that.
When you weld aluminum, you need to flood it with a non-reactive gas to keep the surface from oxidizing. On Earth they use argon because it’s massively abundant. But we don’t have noble gases on the moon, so we have to ship them in from Earth. And neon weighs half as much as argon, so that’s what we use. It didn’t matter to me, because I’d be working in a vacuum. No oxygen to oxidize the metal. But I didn’t want him to know that.”

Jazz gets involved in a caper that’s not entirely on the right side of Artemis law, which is tricky because it involves going outside the domes, and only a handful of Artemis citizens are licensed to go “EVA,” which stands for “extravehicular activity,” an acronym surviving, in this future moon colony, from the days of space travel.

The writing reminds me of a Heinlein juvenile, with some Neal Stephenson-inspired updating (in Anathem cell phones are called jeejahs; in Artemis they’re called gizmos). Here’s a taste:
“The thing that sucks about life-or-death situations is how boring they can be.
I waited in Dad’s shop for three hours. I didn’t have to show up at five a.m., but I’d be damned if I was going to let Jin Chu show up before I did.
I leaned a chair against the back wall of the shop, right next to the air shelter where I’d snuck my first cigarette. I remember I damn near puked from all the smoke that built up but hey, when you’re a rebellious teen and you think you’re making a statement, it’s worth it. ‘Take that, Daddy!’
God, I was such a dipshit.
I checked the clock on the wall every ten seconds as eight a.m. approached. I fiddled with a handheld blowtorch to pass the time. Dad used it to shrink seals onto pipe fittings. It wasn’t ‘welding,’ but you had to do it in a fireproof room, so he offered it as one of his services.
I kept my finger by the ignition trigger. It wasn’t a gun (there were no guns in Artemis) but it could hurt someone if they came too close. I wanted to be ready for anything.”

Later, when her father is helping Jazz fix what’s gone wrong with her EVA caper, he does some welding and she asks him “What’s up, Dad? You’re slow as snot today.” He replies that he is “just being thorough.” And then there’s a nice passage in which Jazz realizes why:
“This wasn’t a normal job. Tomorrow, his daughter’s life would rely on the quality of these welds. It slowly dawned on me that, to him, this was the most critical project he’d ever done. He would accept nothing short of his absolute best….Very few people get a chance to quantify how much their father loves them. But I did. The job should have taken forty-give minutes, but Dad spent three and a half hours on it.”

Fixing what’s wrong involves more exciting welding and adaptation of equipment for alternative uses. There are chase scenes, and you’ll be rooting for everything to work right so the characters can keep breathing and save their society.

If only saving ours could be done so concretely, with scientific know-how and technical ingenuity. Come to think of it, the state of politics on Earth might be what finally drives us out into space, where we can set up a rational society with people who value knowledge and expertise.


13 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2017 11:52 am

    Your comment about Jazz not being girl-like enough may be what makes me read this one. As a woman physicist/engineer with a PhD, I KNOW how different my mental processes were as a kid. I had a very outgoing savvy mother who had been a stewardess and a model, and four younger sisters who still look, every day, as if they could step out of the pages of Vogue for a combined House Beautiful shoot.

    I was different. I don’t know if Andy Weir captured any of that difference, but I wasn’t even curious before (though I loved The Martian – tour de force), and now you have me wondering.

    • December 6, 2017 2:50 pm

      I’ll be interested to see what you think. What I meant by not “girl-like” is more of the feeling I got as a kid from reading Heinlein–that I wasn’t the kind of creature his girls and women are, and I don’t think any real-life woman is, no matter what kinds of interests and expertise she has or how tech-savvy she is.

      • December 7, 2017 7:20 pm

        I hope I get the time soon to read it; I was going to be an astronaut, and even made it to Houston for the selection process in 1980. My memories of life were always obviously different from other women’s lives. And I was the one who had to do all the adjusting.

        It would be nice to know how it would have gone under different circumstances – but it’s possible neither Heinlein nor Weir have any real idea (which is what you noticed as odd). Hard to tell, as we have nothing to compare to.

        Some of Heinlein is wishful thinking. Group or line marriage? Really? No, thanks.

  2. December 7, 2017 8:22 am

    I’d heard he had a second book getting published and I was a little nervous that maybe his first book was a fluke. Sounds like this one is right up my alley too!

    • December 7, 2017 8:30 am

      This one is not as ambitious (or long) but the technical details are still well-woven into the story. Come to think of it, his writing does remind me a little bit of early Tom Clancy although it’s better because he doesn’t put the technical stuff in parentheses.

  3. December 13, 2017 11:25 am

    “Exciting welding” is not something I would have though possible in more than one or two situations. Thanks for the warning that this one is a page-turner. I am on the holds queue for it and hoping it turns up when I have a span of time to get sucked in!

    • December 13, 2017 2:52 pm

      I do hope you will also find the welding exciting. At any rate, I don’t think you will disagree that it’s a page-turner.

  4. December 14, 2017 6:46 am

    My thoughts exactly.

    • December 14, 2017 8:53 am

      …about what will drive us out into space? Sigh. Spider Robinson wrote years ago about not putting all our eggs in one basket (Earth).

  5. Jenny permalink
    January 2, 2018 1:36 pm

    Ha, I read your excerpt about the welding and was thinking “that sounds like a Heinlein juvenile” right before you said it! That’s a compliment from me, by the way; Heinlein’s juveniles are the only ones of his I find readable, but I really like them.

    • January 3, 2018 8:21 am

      I grew up on Heinlein juveniles. My favorite by him is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (I also love The Menace From Earth–there’s something about the way he writes about the moon).

      • Jenny permalink
        January 4, 2018 4:10 pm

        I really like Have Space Suit, Will Travel, too. I like the techy slide-ruley space-suity parts, but also the female characters. Such fun.


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