The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional Sundays.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.

Entries in Andy Weir (2)

Monday
Nov132017

Artemis by Andy Weir

Published by Crown on November 14, 2017

Artemis follows the same formula Andy Weir used in The Martian. Protagonist encounters a problem. Protagonist uses science to solve it. Protagonist encounters another problem. Protagonist uses science to solve it. The solution unwittingly creates an even bigger problem. Protagonist uses science to solve it. And so on. The formula worked in The Martian and, while the science lectures are a bit overdone in Artemis, the story is lively enough to be entertaining.

Jazz Bashara is a Saudi citizen, but she grew up in Artemis, a domed complex on the moon. She lives in low-rent housing deep underground. Jazz would like to get a job leading tourists on excursions outside the domes, but she can’t afford a decent spacesuit. In the meantime, she works as a porter, although she supplements her income with a bit of smuggling. Soon she has a chance to earn a larger supplement by engaging in a bit of industrial sabotage. That leads to troublesome encounters with a crime syndicate that, by the novel’s end, have resolved just a bit too neatly. But the point of the story is to solve problems with science, so the human issues will be secondary to many readers.

Science and engineering geeks will probably like Artemis because of the formula: identify the a problem, explain the science that underlies the problem, and then dream up a solution that is consistent with the science. I thought the explanations were generally interesting, even though I’m not a science or engineering geek (my own geekishness lies in different areas). If it bothers you to read that sort of thing, you probably don’t like science fiction, at least the kind of science fiction that makes science a plot element. Some science fiction writers overdo the technincal aspects of science, as if they expect their readers to have a doctorate in astrophysics, but Weir breaks down concepts into easily digestible morsels. There are, however, a whole lot of morsels, and some of the digressions get in the way of the plot's momentum.

Science fiction that offers imaginative engineering solutions to futuristic problems (like dissipating heat in a vacuum) runs the risk of making a plot secondary to the problem-solving. Weir’s The Martian succeeded by making problem-solving integral to the plot (an astronaut’s survival depended on using science to find ways to stay alive). He doesn’t do that quite as well in Artemis (much of the science is integral to the background but not essential to the plot). The novel creates a convincing sense of what it might be like to live on a moon colony, but it does that by explaining how this works and how that works, which overloads the story with exposition. But as I said, it’s interesting exposition.

The larger question is whether Weir tells a story that has value apart from the science lectures. I think he does. The story creates an engagin protagonist, a precocious and sexually active teenage girl (every male geek's fantasy) who manages to solve a lot of problems with science. Weir imbues Jazz with a sense of humor (or at least a sense of irony) and enough personality to make her likeable. Secondary characters have enough personality to make them credible, and the plot moves quickly enough when it isn't being interrupted by science lectures. I’m not sure the plot is entirely plausible (given what’s at stake, I think the criminals would have made a more forceful effort than a brainy teenager would be able to overcome), and the ending is a bit forced, but Artemis is entertaining as well as educational, so I’m recommending it to science fiction fans.

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Monday
Feb172014

The Martian by Andy Weir

Self-published digitially in 2011; published by Crown on February 11, 2014

The Martian is written in a lively voice that I can easily imagine belonging to a frustrated engineer. It isn't an eloquent voice but it isn't meant to be. Mark Watney has a right to feel frustrated as he narrates his story, having been (understandably) left for dead on the surface of Mars by a crew escaping from a hellacious sandstorm. The base in which the crew planned to live is intact but the communications dish Watney needs to contact Earth is destroyed in the storm. Another crew is scheduled to land (although far from his current location) in four years. Watney has enough food to survive for about a year. Seems like the poor guy should starve to death if he doesn't choose a more peaceful death by morphine, but Watney turns out to be a resourceful scientist who doesn't easily give up on life.

New characters are eventually introduced as the action shifts to Earth and to NASA, which eventually notices that the Rover left behind on Mars seems to have moved. The parts of the story that take place on Earth are surprisingly strong in their own way, and a sharp contrast to the individualistic story that Watney tells. Like the rest of the novel, the Earthbound story seems realistic, from the distress that people feel about Watney to the distress they feel at managing a public relations nightmare.

On one level, The Martian is a survival story, sort of an updated Robinson Crusoe on Mars without the monkey. But it's also a pure science fiction story, with a refreshing emphasis on science. There are no zombies here. At the same time, explaining the science doesn't bog down the story, as science-heavy sf too often does. This is fundamentally a story about people and crisis management. Andy Weir put an enormous amount of thought into The Martian, from commemorative stamps honoring Watney that need to be recalled to overtime funding for NASA scientists who work desperately to save his life.

The Martian strikes me as a novel that should have broad appeal. Fans of geek-speak who think science and technical innovation are the most important aspects of sf will find loads to enjoy. Readers who think sf needs to have human interest to differentiate it from a technical manual will find it here in plentiful supply. Readers who only want to spend time with likable characters will love Watney (he's a funny guy). Even readers who like action-filled plots should be happy. The action doesn't consist of battles with aliens using laser swords but the struggle for survival creates a fair amount of tension and keeps the story moving at a good pace. Readers who crave zombies will be disappointed but I suspect most sf fans will be as happy with The Martian as I was.

The Martian ends with a discussion of human nature. Humans can be truly awful to each other, but most of us have an instinctive desire to help one another, even to help complete strangers when lives are at risk, and to risk our own lives to do it. Through Mark Watney, Weir reminds us of our better natures. According to Watney, people who care about other human beings "massively outnumber" people who don't. I think that's probably true. It's a great reminder, movingly illustrated in an emotionally enriching story. I suspect The Martian is destined to be regarded as a classic work of sf. That's pretty remarkable for a book that was originally self-published.

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