Final Frontier Town: Artemis by Andy Weir

Most heists that I’ve seen are either criminals in for one last score, super glitzy fluff like the “Oceans” movies or The Italian Job, or desperate political heists like Rogue One. When they’re about money they’re usually about money as a macguffin, and when they’re about class it’s usually in an escapist way, watching Danny Ocean or later his sister Debbie slink around in gorgeous clothes and glittering settings. While author Andy Weir tends to say that his books are pure fun, Artemis is one of the few heist stories I’ve come across that, for me at least, is explicitly about money and about class.

Artemis is a frontier town, with a frontier town’s haphazard structure, uneasy diversity, and DIY justice. There’s one cop, a former Mountie named Rudy who polices the city. There’s an Administrator, Madame Ngogi, a Kenyan economist who essentially created Artemis as a carrot to wave at the nascent space tourism industry. There are a few rich citizens and a lot of rich tourists, and the resulting thriving markets in sex work, guided tours, and illicit substances. Because Artemis isn’t really its own nation, but just a cobbled-together outpost, it can’t have its own currency, and instead traffics in slugs—chits that can be converted into and out of a variety of Earth currencies, and which are transferred between citizens via a Gizmo. Gizmos are near-future iPads, sort of catch-all devices that have your ID, bank account, photos, internet access (connection is slow because it has to bounce back and forth with Earth), and even an old-fashioned phone.

Jazz Beshara is a subsistence level delivery girl who smuggles as a side hustle. She lives in a coffin room in a shitty neighborhood on the moon—but it’s better than the odd corners and storage closets she used to squat in. When we meet her, she’s in the process of failing her latest EVA exam, which is a giant problem. First of all, failing an EVA exam might kill you. But more importantly, she needed to pass the exam so she could start taking tourists on guided EVA hikes, thus earning her thousands of slugs per trip. Now she’s lost her shot at a better side hustle (soul-crushing), she’ll have to get her EVA suit repaired (expensive), and she can’t take the test again for six months (it’s a small city, so of course everyone knows she failed). But really, the problem is money. She knows exactly how much money is in her account at all times. She knows exactly how much she needs to pay off an old debt—416,922 slugs—and she spends most of her free time calculating how to save toward that goal. Of course, as everyone who’s ever been truly poor knows, usually those calculations show you that there’s no fucking way.

There’s no fucking way.

So, she gambles on a much larger crime than her usual smuggling, and brings her tiny duct-tape-and-spit world crashing down on her head.

This is a brilliant move, taking a story of abject poverty and sticking it in a city on the moon. Normally when you think of that you’d think of a hi-tech future—space ports and ray guns and FTL. And yeah, there have been other stories about working class people on the moon (I wrote about a couple of them in my look at Samuel Delany’s Driftglass) but this one is the first one I’ve read that keeps a constant running tally of accounts. When Jazz has to go on the lam and buy supplies, we know what it cost. When she has to pay her friends for tech, we see the debit. When a friend offers to help her for free, we note how much she’s just saved. It’s a constant flow underlining that everything in this world has a dollar value. It’s claustrophobic, and if you’ve ever been poor, horrible. But it’s also fucking exhilarating.

I know some people had issues with Weir’s writing of women, but I found Jazz perfectly believable—a snarky woman who has a bunch of guy friends, a complicated relationship with the religion she was raised in, a lot of anger toward capitalism, swears a lot…

Huh. I wonder why I like her?

And as in The Martian I thought Weir’s casual diversity was fine—people have emigrated to the moon from all over the world, so each industry and neighborhood tends to have its own ethnic majorities and minorities, and people get along with each other just about as well as they do in New York—i.e., they fight a lot, but if an outsider threatens them they become one angry growling entity.

The city on the moon is perfect because it’s so grounded in reality. This is only 70 years in the future, so the tech is good enough to get us up there and back but that’s kind of it. There’s a monorail that takes tourists out to the Apollo 11 landing site, and there are bubbles with extremely layered glass , but most people live underground. And given how much it costs to ship things to the moon there aren’t a lot of frills. Very little decoration. Open flame is frowned upon, so there goes a lot of gourmet cooking. Most people subsist on Gunk, which is kind of like the cockroach slurry cakes from Snowpiercer. Air and water are all endlessly recycled. Most of all there’s very little, er, space. Everyone’s packed into bubbled linked by narrow corridors—more interior space = more money, so the floors are lined with narrow hallways that barely allow two people to pass through at once. Everyone knows everyone, which makes it hard for someone to live a private life, let alone plan and perpetrate a heist.

The crime scenes and action are all really well done, my only issue being that Weir does have a tendency to describe a scene, give some hints about how Jazz will get out of trouble, and then surprise the reader with a detail later, but obviously if we had full access to her point of view it would kill a lot of the suspense.

I also loved how he sets up so much of the action by showing us fantastic details of every day life on the moon, and then pulls the trigger a hundred pages later when the details become vital. I don’t want to spoil anything, but he spends a lot of time explaining how fire safety works on the moon—basically since Artemis is in a closed system with no way of escape (not too much breathable air on the moon) every room has to be as fire proof as possible, so they’re equipped with little airlock rooms. If the station detects a fire, it give the room’s occupants a few minutes to bolt to the safety of the airlock before sucking all the air out of the main room—thus killing the fire with lack of oxygen. The issue being that if you don’t make it to the airlock…well, as Spock said when he was in a similar airlock, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Also of course, if you do make it to the airlock you’re trapped until the fire brigade comes and lets you out—but hey, at least you can breathe. As in The Martian, the details and wonkiness transcend any traditional notion of the infodump, because the barrage of info is an inextricable part of the story, and there are only a few points where I thought it got a little too detailed for its own good. I would also say that a few of the supporting characters could have been fleshed out a bit more, although some, like Jazz’s frenemy Dale and her exceedingly rich associate, Trond, come through perfectly. And Weir has a great eye for people whose dedication to their work turns them into villains, or at least big jerks.

And to come back to that money? Just keep track of it as you read, because it tells a whole fascinating story of its own, dancing around all of Jazz’s smart aleck comments and low-gravity fights.

Leah Schnelbach agrees with Ernie that living on the moon would probably be annoying after a while. Come howl with her on Twitter!

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