Sunday 25 August 2019

To the moon and back with cosmic crime caper

Sci Fi: Artemis, Andy Weir, Del Rey, hardback, 320 pages, €16.99

Life on Mars: Matt Damon in the Martian, based on Weir's first book
Life on Mars: Matt Damon in the Martian, based on Weir's first book
Artemis by Andy Weir
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Here's a pleasant surprise: a sci-fi novel that's short. Authors in this genre often have a tendency towards prolixity (I once read one which spent 600 pages setting up an intriguing story, then basically didn't bother closing it out).

Andy Weir's previous book, blockbuster The Martian - filmed by Ridley Scott and Matt Damon - was also a relatively brief 370 pages. Now he sets his follow-up in the titular Artemis, the first city on the moon. It's not really a city, more a collection of large domes, along some 500 metres, which rise above and burrow into the lunar surface. The population is 2,000: tourists (the colony's main industry is terrestrials blowing their savings on once-in-a-lifetime holidays to the moon), workers and a handful of criminals.

Jazz (short for Jasmin) Bashara is sort of a combination of the latter two. The 27-year-old has lived in Artemis since she was six, when her Saudi welder dad moved here for work. Now Jazz earns Artemisian "slugs" as a porter/general gopher, works towards getting an EVA licence (which will allow her bring tourists on well-paid trips outside the domes)… and does a little smuggling on the side.

When Norwegian businessman Trond pays her to sabotage machinery belonging to a rival company - whose business he wants to take over - Jazz ends up in (pun absolutely intended) a world of trouble. Trond is murdered, Jazz is almost murdered more than once, and she discovers there's much more at stake than she thought: in fact, it's the entire future of Artemis.

In some ways, despite the literally outlandish setting, this book is as much comic crime caper as sci-fi; though importantly for nerds like me who appreciate the "science" element of science-fiction, Weir doesn't neglect that either. Artemis reminded me a lot of Jeffery Deaver's Rune series, and especially Lawrence Block's novels about Bernie Rhodenbarr, a kind of "gentleman burglar": light, playful, funny, a wee bit self-referential.

The plotting is tight, there's a vague, nod-and-wink noir feel to the writing; the characters are well-drawn and very likeable. (Jazz is hilarious: a bould pup with a foul mouth, quick temper, tangled love-life, fondness for drink and very big heart; I'd imagine actresses would take your hand off to play the role.) And importantly, Weir ensures that the outer-space location is never superfluous. This is definitely science-fiction, albeit refracted through a mystery-novel prism.

Science is key to everything here: the plot, the twists, the actions and reactions, the baddies' motives, the ultimate McGuffin. Jazz saves the day through science. She also almost kills everyone through science, but as she might drawl herself, "Hey - can't have everything."

One character declares near the end, "I love a good caper." This, my friends, is what I call a good caper. I'd almost say "out of this world"… but that'd be a pun too far.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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