The Quest for “Real” Women in Sci-fi: A Review of Artemis by Andy Weir

Artemis’ Jazz Bashara, like many teens and twenty-somethings, is strapped for cash. On Artemis, everyone is a billionaire, and the cost of living is astronomical. The only way to survive without being a billionaire is to work for one, and so begins Jazz’s career as a porter, smuggling in contraband from Earth in order to pay the rent. But the plot really begins when Jazz is offered the chance to never worry about funds again; at least, if she can pull off the heist of a lifetime.

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Andy Weir’s Artemis sells itself, therefore, as a plot-driven heist/thriller with an added dash of “diversity.” The main character Jazz, is female, Muslim, and Saudi-Arabian, living in a city owned by a Kenyan corporation. Seeing that the novel was also published by the author of The Martian, I flocked to read it, fully expecting to love it.

Unfortunately, I did not love Artemis.

The first problem with Artemis, leaving the plot aside for the momentis that it reads like some heterosexual male’s fantasy. Newsflash, Mr. Weir: women don’t have to be sexy. They can be, but they shouldn’t be defined solely by it. Jazz Bashara is given no memorable description except that she is sexy, and reminds readers of her sexiness in nearly every chapter. Our main character Jazz likes to give “good bitchy glare[s]” (10), call other women “bitches,” and did I mention that she “was pretty sexy” yet? (203). Weir mentioned it quite a bit.

Apparently, Weir was really trying to accurately portray women, though. In his acknowledgements, he thanks several women for their input in helping him to construct such an elusive alien as the female human. (My words, not his.) I am glad that Weir consulted other people instead of writing in a vacuum, but shouldn’t people know that women don’t think like this? Jazz ends up being written like a caricature of a person.

Here are some actual quotations from the novel, in case you didn’t believe me when I stated that the book reads like some guy’s fantasy.

  • “I turned my head inside the helmet, bit a nipple (try not to get excited), and sucked some water out.”
    • Yes, “try not to get excited” is an actual, narratorial comment made by Jazz. Mr. Weir, nobody was “excited” about Jazz drinking some water. We just think you’re weird.
  •  “The city shined in the sunlight like a bunch of metallic boobs” (94).
    • I repeat; weird. Yes, the comment adds a bit of humor, but these are only a few examples of the narrator’s immature, fifth-grade-boy attitude to her own body.

In an interview with inverse.com, Weir said that he “was pretty insecure about writing a female lead.” His family, friends and editors all pitched in to give him advice. He then went on to say that “one thing I learned during this process is there are certain cases where a man and a woman will convey the same thought with very different words. And so there were a lot of places where my beta readers, for lack of a better term, would say, ‘This is kind of a very man way of saying this. A woman would say something more like this.'” And yet, even after being told some sentences conveyed a “very man” way of speaking (whatever that even means,) we still end up with “the city shined..like a bunch of metallic boobs” and “bit a nipple.”

Weir does admit that he got a lot of feedback saying that Jazz was “really acting very immature” in some places, but his response was, “Well, yeah she is immature.” Duly noted.

But about that “diversity” thing. Weir was clearly looking to give himself a pat on the back for writing a sci-fi novel with a female, Muslim main character. And I am glad such a novel exists; I just wish Weir hadn’t written it. Weir takes the cheap way out, because he never builds Jazz to be a complex, fully-realized character in any dimension. In fact, Jazz is a non-practicing Muslim, which read to me as code for Weir not wanting to be bothered with actually having to do the research. And when Jazz does momentarily decide to wear a niqab, it’s to be used as a disguise for the plan she’s carrying out.

According to Jazz, a niqab is a “great way to wear a mask without arousing any suspicion” (74). I understand that this line was probably sarcastic, but a niqab is not a joking matter. Its purpose is most certainly not for carrying out heists, and the comment, in the context of all the other boob jokes present in the novel, comes across as offensive and misguided.

In addition, we never see Saudi Arabia or Kenya come into play. Jazz has never lived in Saudi Arabia except for when she was a young child, so Weir got out of doing that research. As for Kenya, well, we do go there; but it seems awfully like America in his portrayal. I’ve never been to Kenya, so I’m no expert, but I think Weir just chose again to slap on a more “diverse” name for his own pride.

So here’s my proposition to all the publishers out there: please don’t just give the white guys the task of diversifying literature. Why don’t you let an actual Muslim woman write an awesome book about a Muslim character? Or let marginalized people write books about marginalized people? Or people with disabilities write characters with disabilities?  The list goes on. Why does Andy Weir get to be the one to do it- and turn it into his own sexualized fantasy?

Actually, I do know why. In publishing, the goal is to make the most profit. Publishing is expensive, and the way to lose the least amount of money is to publish only what seems like the least of a gamble. Andy Weir had a huge success with The Martian, so if you have the option of publishing an unknown person-of-color or already successful Weir, well, I guess the publishers would choose Weir.

The problem with that is the snubbing of quality. If someone other than Weir had written Artemis, it might have actually been a great novel. Jazz could have been built up to be a realistic, smart, actual human-like character. In addition, such a writing style would not need to sacrifice humor. One can be funny without being offensive, after all. Weir did that in The Martian. In short, Penguin Random House chose to create a money-making best-seller that is actually a terrible read, instead of a well-rated work of literature.

I loved The Martian and its movie, and I still like Andy Weir’s writing. He does have an unmatched ability to take science and make it appealing to the masses, explaining it all in a clear and colloquial manner. My criticisms aren’t intended to be personal; Artemis just happens to be the next installment in my ongoing frustration with the publishing industry. And certain male writers. Particularly those without a clue about how women actually think.

The light at the end of the tunnel? Artemis was announced in September to be in the process of becoming a film. You can track it on IMDB here. The film could make up for the novel’s faults with its casting, its settings, and its script. The movie of The Martian, for example, was true to the novel, and yet took on a far more serious tone than the novel had.

In conclusion: Women can be smart and awesome without wearing skimpy clothing and being sexy because some guy wanted them to be. Jazz Bashara would’ve been awesome without all the “bitchy glares” and nipple jokes that weren’t even funny. The fact that she lives on the moon, is smart and independent, is more than enough.

My advice to Andy Weir: Keep writing; you have great plot ideas. But maybe just stick with people you can actually embody as a writer. I’ve read reviews of Artemis that said Jazz was a female Mark Watney, and I wholeheartedly disagree. Mark Watney made jokes, but he himself wasn’t a joke. Readers took him seriously, even as he “scienced the shit” out of things in his escape plan. Jazz, on the other hand, makes jokes, and becomes one. I want more female representation in sci-fi, but I don’t want it this way.

 


Recommended Read: Dawn by Octavia Butler. A thrilling, unputdownable sci-fi novel with a strong, female main character, and written by a woman of color. In addition, it’s prose is constructed beautifully. While the majority of the covers you’ll find for Dawn and its trilogy are unnecessarily sexualized, Dawn is still a pretty perfect read anyway. What more could you ask for?

Some Publishing Statistics:

 

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