As I was reading Any Weir’s new novel, “Artemis,” I began thinking about the components of a good caper story. What makes us want to watch a group of crooks break the law?
“Ocean’s 11” (the remake) is a pretty good model. You’ve got a charismatic leader Danny Ocean (George Clooney), his trusted alter-ego sidekick Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), and a quirky crew of oddballs all with their own special roles to play in the big heist.
Their goal is to steal $160 million locked in a seemingly impregnable vault that constitutes the revenues from not one, not two but count ’em three Las Vegas casinos. Here they’ve got a chance to take the house with one enormous roll of the dice. It’s the dream of anyone who’s ever visited Sin City.
The final element is a good antagonist who deserves to be robbed. Here we’ve got Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), the ruthless owner of the three casinos who will “kill you, then he’ll go to work on you” if you cross him. And Benedict is dating Ocean’s former wife, Tess (Julia Roberts), whom the thief wants to win back.
“Artemis,” which is the name of lunar colony where the story is set about 60 years in the future, is not a straightforward caper story. Andy Weir’s followup to “The Martian” is a caper/thriller that quickly enmeshes the heroine in “the middle of a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself,” as the book jacket says. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t quite work as either a caper or a thriller.
Jazz is a porter and small-time smuggler eking out a living literally at the bottom of the economic ladder on Artemis. While serving wealthy clients in Artemis’ five domes named Armstrong, Aldrin, Conrad, Bean and Shepard, she lives hand to mouth in a cramped apartment that seems to be modeled after Japan’s capsule hotels. (Those are fun for the night, but try living in one.) She must share communal bathrooms and showers.
Artemis was built and is run by a Kenyan corporation. It seems that all the major space powers of today priced themselves out of the market for building moon colonies by over regulating their space industries, so everyone who was anyone went to Kenya. In this there are shades of Luxembourg’s effort to corner the market on asteroid mining.
One day a customer for whom Jazz regularly smuggles goods offers her a million slugs (the lunar currency) to pull off a little caper for him. The plan doesn’t totally make sense, something she realizes at the time. It also seems like a job best left to some ex-special forces types. Despite her doubts, she takes it because, hey, a million slugs is a million slugs.
I probably shouldn’t reveal much more of the plot here. Suffice to say, the caper doesn’t go quite according to plan, people start dying, and Jazz finds herself on the run from some very angry and powerful people who would happily throw her out of an airlock in her birthday suit.
While trying to stay alive, Jazz must put together a crew to help her finish the job. Although we meet the various members of the team throughout the story, they don’t really come together until roughly 200 pages into a 300-page book. That’s when the real action starts.
As the heroine, I found Jazz is more irritating than engaging. She’s certainly resourceful, but it would have been nice if she had been a little more clever. I’m not sure Weir has quite gotten a handle on how to write a strong female character.
The crew she assembles is an interesting bunch. I think the antagonist needed a bit more fleshing out. One yearns for a Terry Benedict-type character.
Overall, it was a bit of a disappointment for me. Those who are more technically oriented than I am will probably like Weir’s descriptions of the colony and how everything works in it.