Author: Andy Weir
Publisher: Del Rey
Price: Rs. 599
Andy Weir broke all the rules with his debut science fiction novel The Martian, which was self-published in 2011, reissued by Crown Publishing three years later, sold 5 million copies and was made into a film by Ridley Scott. It had no literary pretensions, its characters spoke the language of nerdy bulletin boards, and yet it became the biggest success in SF publishing in a long time. Partly because it spoke directly to the nerdy lot, but mostly because it also connected with a general readership interested in how stuff works.
The Martian combined the American frontier spirit with survivalism — which was the Cold War adaptation of the 19th century frontier spirit — to present an engaging problem: how is a lone astronaut, abandoned on Mars by an aborted mission, to save himself, make a home, start a farm to feed himself, open communications with the earth, travel thousands of miles across the red planet, and finally launch himself into orbit to hitch a ride back home, all on his own physical and intellectual resources. The urgent need that the reader felt to see this intelligent, imaginative and resourceful spaceman survive propelled the story. It was the how to, rather than the what, the why or the what about — the philosophical dimensions which give fiction body — which made The Martian work. And despite being shorn of literary pretensions or even ambitions, it worked with the staggering energy of a Saturn V lifting off from
Weir’s second novel, Artemis, is more of the same, but the propellant is rather weak — a space heist gone wrong, which isn’t quite the same as a tale of survival against all the odds that the universe and its mathematics can throw at you. The only difference is that the protagonist is female, an Arab porter for Earth-Moon shipments named Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara, who moves illicit cargo like Cuban cigars on the sly. She is the estranged daughter of a master welder, and much given to booze, sex, get-rich-quick-dreams and anything else that makes life interesting. Her language is as juvenile and unliterary as the Martian’s had been, and what had seemed natural in him — it is well-known that young men are stupider than young women — sounds out of place in her case. Sure, women like Jazz exist, but the wise leave them severely alone.
Also, the problems she solves, which form the substance of the book, are underwhelming. The Martian was a broad-spectrum crash course in university science, rapidly explaining orbital calculations, telemetry and communications across interplanetary distances, electricals, electronics, energetics, the biology behind growing potatoes without the soil ecosystem of Earth (spoiler: the astronaut carries the ecosystem in his body, and evacuates it), Martian weather and even Morse code, superseded by digital communications but resurrected to communicate visually. When standard communications links to Earth failed, the astronaut spelled out messages with rocks in the Martian desert, and used a rover’s camera to send them to Earth.
Most interesting was the complex mathematics behind maintaining an ecosystem in which a human and his crops can survive. The reader was reminded of deathly schoolroom anxieties when confronted with Boyle’s Law, Charles Law and the carbon and nitrogen cycles, but here, it was not at all threatening. It can be quite entertaining to calculate how many litres of oxygen and nitrogen, how many kilos of potatoes, and how many solar panels the ecosystem of a one-man rover would need for a dash across the Martian desert, and how it would find its way with neither GPS nor a sailor’s navigational tools.
That genius for explaining manmade ecosystems is again visible in Artemis, when Weir shows how a lunar colony would be organised. It is a sustained and obsessive act of the imagination, exploring not only the optimal thickness of the pressure hulls of domes, but also how society and the economy would function. On Weir’s moon, the Nigerians have taken a lead in the space race, and various nationalities have taken over certain professions, just as the Chinese dominated the laundry business and dentistry in the colonial era. But the moon is a harsh mistress, and everyone must relearn their skills.
Firemen on the moon do precisely what they do on earth — starve fires of oxygen. But in a pressure dome on an airless world, the SOP turns out to be a little different. What do people eat? The poor, like Jazz, live on an algal mush called ‘gunk’. Which manufacturing industries would flourish? Glass and aluminium. And what would it take to keep technical incompetents, who might accidentally void the whole city’s air to space, away from airlocks to the lunar surface? A caste of extravehicular activity (EVA) experts, who alone are licensed to operate airlocks. The police? They exist, but their methods are not of our world.
The economy is cashless and mobile-based, possibly to delight Narendra Modi’s heart, and the most valuable sector is tourism. It would be, actually, if the current race for private spacefaring becomes financially viable. What would people pay to see Neil Armstrong’s bootprint in the Sea of Tranquillity, the point where the “giant leap for mankind” landed? And what would it take to prevent tourists from erasing it forever, a much easier feat than vandalising the Mona Lisa?
But as the story progresses the protagonists, who were not very sharply etched to begin with, are depersonalised to the extent that they become pegs to hang Weir’s scientific whatiffery on. The tipping point is reached fairly early, when Jazz is required to try out a prototype reusable condom, on the tenuous ground that she has an active sex life. The science and economics of reusability is brilliantly explained, but at this point it becomes clear that Jazz is just a clothes-horse to hang some technical daydreaming on.
This is a good point to declare that I did not finish Artemis. There was no compelling reason to do so except the call of duty, a contemptible motive in our sadly immoral times. For an author who disrupted the market with The Martian, Artemis marks a detour into the wilderness of bad pulp. One hopes that Weir will return to what he excels at — engaging with the biggest problems of the space effort as a talented technologist with an obsessive attention to scientific detail. Space heists are just too petty to belong in that space.