Crown, 2017, 305 pages
Jazz Bashara is a criminal.
Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you're not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you've got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent.
Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she's stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself—and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first.
I have not read Andy Weir's The Martian, nor seen the movie, but I'll get to it eventually. His second book, Artemis, was definitely entertaining enough to put him on my list of authors to follow. I liked this book, despite all negative things I am about to say about his protagonist.
A "kids on the moon, getting up to hijinks" story makes my mind immediately go to Heinlein, but Artemis is really more like a classic Asimov story — it's full of nerdy, mostly plausible science and economics, a plot driven by a unique SF setting, clever solutions by very smart characters, and an inability to write women who aren't basically men in a woman's body.
Jazz (Jasmine) Bashara is not really a kid, but she still kind of acts like one. The daughter of a Saudi Arabian welder who came to the moon to work, her mother abandoned the family when she was little, and Jazz has grown up on Artemis, the moon's only city. Jazz went through a very Western sort of teenage rebellion, despite her father being remarkably progressive and fatherly for a devout Saudi Muslim. So it's hard to sympathize with Jazz and her constant whining. She threw away every opportunity her father tried to hand to her in order to move in with Jerkass Older Boyfriend. Jerkass Older Boyfriend turned out to be a jerkass, so Jazz winds as close to homeless as you can get in Artemis, with few job prospects, but too much pride to go back to daddy, despite it being pretty obvious that he'd welcome his prodigal daughter back even after all her screw-ups.
Jazz proceeds to make a low-wage living as the lunar equivalent of a bike messenger while setting up a more lucrative side business as a smuggler. With the help of her friend on the ground at the Kenyan spaceport, a former pen pal who happened to become a loader and thus her most trusted partner, even though they've never met, Jazz brings in luxury goods that are illegal on Artemis, like flammables, restricted chemicals, a few light recreational drugs, the sort of thing that makes her "naughty" but not the sort of stuff that would actually make her evil, like hard drugs or weapons.
One of her customers is a Nordic billionaire who has a complicated scheme to take over an aluminum company, for reasons Jazz doesn't quite understand, but he recruits her to sabotage the company's robot vehicles. This scheme goes badly, Jazz is soon targeted by both Artemis's law enforcement and by a criminal syndicate who was the real partner with the aluminum company, and her billionaire employer is dead.
As a caper story, Artemis was quite good. I enjoyed it, I enjoyed most of the quirky characters Weir introduces, and I enjoyed his detailed construction of Artemis, its society and its economy. It's a somewhat optimistic but certainly not utopian vision of how a lunar colony might come about, and when I was beginning to question whether Artemis could really sustain itself just on rich tourists, Weir answered that question as the real plot got underway.
Jazz is a bit of an anti-Heinleinian character: she's smart and ridiculously capable at anything she bothers to care about, but she's also a whiny screw-up with flexible morals. But that isn't why I didn't like her. I didn't like her because... okay, I'm just gonna say it. This is a textbook example of an author writing a character that would traditionally be a standard Straight White Dude, and making the character "(marginalized identity group)" instead, and then sitting back to collect diversity cookies. Except... Jazz pretty much acts like a Straight White Dude, or rather, a dude's idea of how a young, attractive woman would act. I.e., she's hot and she knows it and her internal monologue shows it, and boy does she love sex as we are repeatedly reminded. Her being a brown-skinned ex-Muslim means exactly nothing except that it provides some scripted tension with her father. But her father, despite being a devout Saudi Muslim, is also pretty much indistinguishable from a progressive Western dad. He sighs and makes the occasional snarky comment about all the men his daughter fucks, but seems to treat it as an unfortunate phase she's going through. There's a running gag about how her nerdy, awkwardly virginal scientist friend keeps pestering her to test an improved condom he invented (not with him).
Jazz is a very bro-ey sort of heroine. Weir wrote a Western Action Girl archetype, complete with the sexing and the criminality and the wise-cracking love/hate relationship with everyone from cops to tradesmen to billionaires, and then pasted a Saudi background over that. I don't think it's interesting to write a generic Hollywood heroine and by-the-way-she's-a-Muslima. I think what would be interesting would be to show her actually having some struggle with the culture and religion she's abandoned. I can totally buy her father still loving her and wanting what's best for her, but neither she nor her father really acted like "Muslim" or "Saudi" was anything more than a quirky background detail to add some Diversity Points.
Despite all the times I rolled my eyes at Jazz smugly contemplating her hotness or her horniness, she was fun (if flat) in the role she served, and clearly there is the potential for further adventures. I would not mind reading another book about her and Artemis, or some other space book by this author.
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