Andy Weir had the debut novel sensation that, surely, every novelist dreams of: The Martian was a world-wide best-seller, stayed on the best-seller lists for almost two years, and was then adapted to become one of the top ten movies of 2015.
You can only imagine what a life-changing experience this must have been for a guy who spent 15 years writing novels while working full time.
Anyway, Weir is now back with his second novel: Artemis.
In various creative fields, people talk about the "sophomore slump", and it surely can't have been easy for Weir to figure out how he wanted to write his next book. I'm sure he was also feeling pressure from both his readers and his publisher to hurry up and deliver another book.
So he did.
Artemis is certainly not the book that The Martian was.
However, both as a standalone effort and as a companion piece, it is quite interesting.
And, as you should probably grow to expect from Weir, it's a rollicking roller-coaster adventure ride of a book.
But while The Martian was a book about humans who were in space, and wanted to get back to Earth, Artemis is a book about people who were on Earth, and have decided that they want to live in space.
Weir is very interested in the notion of what it would mean for humans to be living somewhere other than on Earth, which is indeed a fascinating thing to think about, and Artemis is of most interest when you look at it from that viewpoint.
Artemis, as it turns out, spends most of its time spinning tales of completely ordinary experiences that have much more to do with being human beings, than with being in outer space. Rather than being just a sterile laboratory occupied by scientists, as so many "outer space" books are, Weir's outer space civilization is full of everything that makes us human. There are bars, casinos, and night clubs; there are prostitutes, drug dealers, and smugglers; there are petty rivalries, dirty laundry, and double-dealing.
But, most of all, there are complex systems, and, as was true with The Martian, it is when dealing with interesting complex systems that Weir's book is at its most interesting (even if great literature it ain't):
He wiggled his hand. "That wasn't just you. There were a lot of engineering failures. Like: Why aren't there detectors in the air pipeline for complex toxins? Why did Sanchez store methane, oxygen, and chlorine in a room with an oven? Why doesn't Life Support have its own separate air partition to make sure they'll stay awake if the rest of the city has a problem? Why is Life Support centralized instead of having a separate zone for each bubble? These are the questions people are asking.
Moreover, as Weir observes, these aren't actually engineering questions at their root; they are questions about how we organize our societies, a question which is just as important and relevant in outer space as it is here on Earth:
"The next big step is taxes."
"Taxes?" I snorted. "People come here because they don't want to pay taxes."
"They already pay taxes -- as rent to KSC. We need to change over to a property-ownership and tax model so the city's wealth is directly tied to the economy. But that's not for a while."
She took off her glasses. "It's all part of the life-cycle of an economy. First it's lawless capitalism until that starts to impede growth. Next comes regulation, law enforcement, and taxes. After that: public benefits and entitlements. Then, finally, overexpenditure and collapse."
"Yes, collapse. An economy is a living thing. It's born full of vitality and dies once it's rigid and worn out. Then, through necessity, people break into smaller economic groups and the cycle begins anew, but with more economies. Baby economies, like Artemis is right now."
Although Artemis ultimately fails as a work of literature, it is promising as a hint of what Weir is interested in, and where he might go.
Humans in space is a fascinating concept, and thinking about it realistically, rather than in some fantastic sterile implausible laboratory fashion, is how we're going to get to a point where we're actually ready to have humans in space. Building space ships and sending people out in them is just an engineering problem, and we'll solve that, probably pretty soon. But economics, politics, crime, government? These are actually HARD problems.
Writing about them, thinking about them, sharing those ideas, is one way to make it real, and for that, if for nothing else, I enjoyed reading Artemis and will look forward to Weir's next work.