For his first novel, the 2011 blog-turned-book-turned-movie The Martian, Andy Weir chose a main character who was pretty similar to himself: a white guy who loves science. For his follow-up, which came out on November 14, Weir wanted to try something different: Artemis follows Jazz Bashara, a 20-something woman of color who lives on the first (and only) city on the Moon, where she, well, moonlights as a smuggler.
Essentially, Artemis is a lunar sci-fi thriller, and it arrives at a high point in cultural moon lunacy—entrepreneurs like Elon Musk are infatuated with the idea of settlements there, and startups like Moon Express see Luna as a base for further spaceward travel. And according to Stephen Hawking, humanity should probably relocate to the Moon to escape Earth’s impending doom. But is Weir’s vision of future lunar life—particularly as it concerns Jazz and other minorities—really a better place to live?
Sarah Scoles, Science Contributor: I listened to the audiobook version of The Martian while driving from California to North Carolina in 2015. Just as main character Mark Watney’s crew was getting pummeled by a dust storm on the Red Planet, I was (kid you not) plowing my Kia into a ground-level red cloud at the California-Arizona border. I thought, “I. am. Mark. Watney.” And, in that coincidental moment, I felt more connected to Mark than I did to Jazz throughout Artemis. Which is surprising because while I live neither on the moon nor Mars, hello, it is I, a human woman on earth who knows a technical thing or two, like this Jazz (although, admittedly, she’s a much better smuggler). I was excited at the premise of a woman-headlined, high-profile sci-fi novel, but things didn’t turn out like I expected.
Justice Namaste, Editorial Fellow: I definitely have a lot in common with Jazz. In my twenties, unsure about what to do with my life, usually broke. But about 50 pages in, I noticed a phrase that felt a little weird, and as I kept reading, I started to pick up on a pattern.
Early in the book, in a letter to her pen pal Kelvin, Jazz refers to herself as “light brown.” Weir tells us Jazz is of Saudi Arabian descent, and implies that she was raised Muslim, but is no longer practicing. Now, I’ve been a light-skinned black woman my entire life, and while I’ve heard plenty of people refer to themselves as “light-skinned” or even “light,” I’ve never heard “light brown” before. This was the first time I noticed what soon turned into a series of references to race that felt forced and awkward.
Scoles: Weir does note, in the acknowledgments, that he asked women for help in tackling “the challenge of writing a female narrator” and “[making] sure the portrayal of Islam was accurate.” But some blind spots seem to remain.
Namaste: Like at the beginning of the book, Jazz makes an offhand reference to Artemis’s racial makeup, in a way that implies everyone is on the same footing. But just a few pages later, she also mentions that career demographics are based on race: “With the exception of me and Rudy, everyone in the room was Vietnamese. That’s kind of how things shake out in Artemis. A few people who know one another emigrate, they set up a service of some kind, then they hire their friends. And of course, they hire people they know.”
There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this, but it’s one of the few times that ethnicity is mentioned in the book. Jazz is introduced as Saudi Arabian early in the story, but then her ethnicity seems to disappear from view—except in her conversations with her father and other Saudi Arabian folks in the welding industry. However, even these minimal references to racial dynamics make it clear that Artemis is a place (like every other place) where race influences both personal relationships and societal dynamics. The problem is that the book doesn’t overtly acknowledge that.
Scoles: On the other hand, the reader never forgets that Jazz is a woman. Example: “I giggled like a little girl. Hey, I’m a girl, so I’m allowed.” In an interview with SyFy Wire, Weir said, “I’m certainly not trying to make a point by having a female lead….She doesn’t encounter any distinctly ‘female’ challenges….And the story takes place in a future society where there is practically no sexism.”
The book does portray powerful, intelligent female characters (I think the ruthless head of the colony is pretty rad), and passes the Bechdel Test. But then also, one of Jazz’s boyfriends has sex with a 14-year-old girl, and that’s allowed because “different cultures have different sexual morals, so Artemis doesn’t have age-of-consent rules at all.”
This pseudolibertarian attitude toward sex laws mirrors Weir’s hands-off stance toward putting serious topics in his fiction. Weir has stated more than once, in interviews about Artemis, that he means no politics by it all. “[My stories] have no subtext or message,” he told The New York Times. “If you think you see something like that, it’s in your head, not mine.”
But, at least in some modes of literary criticism and consumption, authorial intent—in this case, Weir’s desire for our apolitical comprehension—matters not at all. The text stands alone, and means to each reader what it will. And I, for one, think consent laws and, say, the black markets in which Jazz operates, are political.
Namaste: I think that comment gets at one of the key issues—regardless of whether Weir intended to make Artemis a “political” book, choosing a woman of color as his main character made it impossible for the story to be left out of conversations about gender and race.
Weir’s comment about Artemis being a society without sexism feels similar to race-related idea of “color-blindness.” You’ve probably heard the argument before, when someone says “I only believe in one race: the human race.” The idea behind this is that if you don’t see racial difference, you can’t possibly uphold inequality. However, many scholars argue that by refusing to acknowledge when racial discrimination does exist, color-blindness actually supports systems of racial inequality.
Scoles: On the other hand, Artemis focuses constantly about Jazz’s gender and intercourse exploits, in a way that seems meant to telegraph that Artemisians are beyond sexual stigma. But then there are moments like this one, when Jazz is talking to her father’s colleague: “You were nice little girl,” the colleague says. “Now you are bad.”
“Okay…,” responds Jazz. “Look I want to talk to you about something—”
“You are unmarried and have sex with many men,” says the colleague. Jazz then notes, to herself, that the woman’s son has sex with many men.
This interaction says to me that perhaps men having lots of unwed sex (even queer sex) is okay. But not so much for women.
Namaste: And in the same way Artemis may not be the sexually liberated environment it passes itself off as, perhaps Jazz is not the sex-positive role model she is assumed to be. Sure, Jazz likes sex, and she’s comfortable talking about it, but is that really all it takes to have a progressive view on sex? I mean the notoriously sexist idea of “locker room talk” checks both those boxes. It seems like this characterization of Jazz assumes that sexually progressive women approach sex in similar ways to men, when really sex positivity is about having a healthy and nuanced attitude towards sex, a depth that Jazz seems to lack in this story.
Scoles: And then there’s the whole subplot involving the star scientist, Svoboda, her partner in crime. I’d say Jazz is top-dawg in the dynamics most of their interactions, and their relationship is mutually beneficial. But Svoboda agrees to help Jazz with technical challenges—if she agrees to test his newly invented reusable condom in exchange. Because, you know, Jazz has a lot of sex, whereas he is a nerd and bad with women.
Namaste: Jazz is the quintessential “cool girl” (otherwise known as the “girl who’s one of the guys” or just Jennifer Lawrence)—a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”-adjacent trope. Author Gillian Flynn laid out a perfect description in Gone Girl. Despite Jazz’s embodiment of this trope, she is also shown as a quick-witted smuggler whose scientific knowledge and ability to improvise gets her out of all sorts of jams.
Scoles: OK, so we can agree: Sexism exists on Artemis. So does racism, but it’s barely ever mentioned. Artemis seems to over-emphasize the role of gender (say, with the constant mentions of Jazz’s sex life), while almost completely avoiding discussions of race.
Namaste: This is a natural result of color-blindness. If you don’t believe race is important, or if you believe that differentiating people along racial lines is bad, it makes sense to mostly avoid talking about race in a meaningful way. There’s a word for this lack of discussion: erasure. He does create a society in which people are of different races, which is a step in the right direction. And people from a variety of ethnic groups have power, and interact. But the book glosses over those interactions, and how race might inform them, and inform people’s identities, in a way it doesn’t gloss over, say, the physics of explosions. While Artemis’s science and tech are fleshed out, the book could spend similar time playing out how earthly social issues might play out on the moon.
Scoles: Weir handles what I will eloquently call “queer stuff” (I can say that because I’m gay, which is a joke that will illuminate itself in a second) with similar lack of nuance. Jazz’s ex-boyfriend, Tyler, left her for a man named Dale. Dale helpfully explains the following: “Tyler’s gay, Jazz. Gay as Oscar Wilde wearing sequins walking a pink poodle with a tiara on his head.” This defines “gay” as “tired-ass stereotypes.” But it’s OK! Because a gay character says it.
Later, the bartender (affectionately?) calls Dale an “arse bandit.” Generally, when Dale is around, Jazz makes sure to let us know that, hey, never forget, he’s the gay one, gay AF, sex with men, doesn’t like girls, nope, not at all. Jazz is mad that Tyler left her for Dale (fair enough, although her relationship with her closeted boyfriend was probably not on firm long-term footing anyway), so she herself may be more apt to mention his orientation. But it (and mentions from other characters) land wrong, like if my friends said, “Good to see you, gay friend,” when I walked into the room. I wouldn’t like that, were I here or in Artemis.
And in Artemis, Weir ginned up a society full of different races, queer people, and a competent, crafty, mouthy, smart, independent, sexually uninhibited female character. And that counts for a lot. But the world could have been built and written to do something deeper. Not to contain a “political message,” but to acknowledge that even in Moon Land, life and race and gender are complex. Let’s all admit that this stuff is ingrained in all of us, and the art we create reflects it, and then that art reflects back on society.
Namaste: It makes me wonder: Why make her a woman of color at all? Why not just write a white man? Saying that these aspects of identity don’t really affect who Jazz is suggests that ethnicity, religion, and gender can just be slapped on top of an already-formed character, and that they aren’t actually integral to her identity development and character arc. Since Artemis is already on its way to being made into a movie, this is an area the filmmakers need to be sure to handle with nuance. Because personally, if life on Artemis has the same social issues as we do here, I’d rather save my cash and stay on Earth.