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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Reading List: Artemis

Weir, Andy. Artemis. New York: Crown, 2017. ISBN 978-0-553-44812-2.
Seldom has a first-time novelist burst onto the scene so spectacularly as Andy Weir with The Martian (November 2014). Originally written for his own amusement and circulated chapter by chapter to a small but enthusiastic group of fans who provided feedback and suggestions as the story developed, he posted the completed novel as a free download on his Web site. Some people who had heard of it by word of mouth but lacked the technical savvy to download documents and transfer them to E-readers inquired whether he could make a Kindle version available. Since you can't give away Kindle books, he published it at the minimum possible price. Before long, the book was rising into the Amazon bestseller list in science fiction, and he was contacted by a major publisher about doing a print edition. These publishers only accept manuscripts through agents, and he didn't have one (nor do agents usually work with first-time authors, which creates a chicken-and-egg problem for the legacy publishing industry), so the publisher put him in touch with a major agent and recommended the manuscript. This led to a 2014 hardcover edition and then a Hollywood movie in 2016 which was nominated for 7 Oscars and won two Golden Globes including Best Motion Picture and Best Performance by an Actor in its category.

The question fans immediately asked themselves was, “Is this a one shot, or can he repeat?” Well, I think we have the answer: with Artemis, Andy Weir has delivered another story of grand master calibre and shown himself on track to join the ranks of the legends of the genre.

In the latter part of the 21st century commerce is expanding into space, and the Moon is home to Artemis, a small settlement of around 2000 permanent residents, situated in the southern part of the Sea of Tranquility, around 40 km from the Apollo 11 landing site. A substantial part of the economy of Artemis is based upon wealthy tourists who take the train from Artemis to the Apollo 11 Visitor Center (where they can look, but not touch or interfere with the historical relics) and enjoy the luxuries and recreations which cater to them back in the pleasure domes.

Artemis is the creation of the Kenya Space Corporation (KSC), which officially designates it “Kenya Offshore Platform Artemis” and operates under international maritime law. As space commerce burgeoned in the 21st century, Kenya's visionary finance minister, Fidelis Ngugi, leveraged Kenya's equatorial latitude (it's little appreciated that once reliable fully-reusable launch vehicles are developed, there's no need to launch over water) and hands-off regulatory regime provided a golden opportunity for space entrepreneurs to escape the nanny state regulation and crushing tax burden of “developed” countries. With tax breaks and an African approach to regulation, entrepreneurs and money flowed in from around the world, making Kenya into a space superpower and enriching its economy and opportunities for its people. Twenty years later Ngugi was Administrator of Artemis; she was, in effect, ruler of the Moon.

While Artemis was a five star experience for the tourists which kept its economy humming, those who supported the settlement and its industries lived in something more like a frontier boom town of the 19th century. Like many such settlements, Artemis attracted opportunity-seekers and those looking to put their pasts behind them from many countries and cultures. Those established tend to attract more like them, and clannish communities developed around occupations: most people in Life Support were Vietnamese, while metal-working was predominantly Hungarian. For whatever reason, welding was dominated by Saudis, including Ammar Bashara, who emigrated to Artemis with his six-year old daughter Jasmine. Twenty years later, Ammar runs a prosperous welding business and Jasmine (“Jazz”) is, shall we say, more irregularly employed.

Artemis is an “energy intense” Moon settlement of the kind described in Steven D. Howe's Honor Bound Honor Born (May 2014). The community is powered by twin 27 megawatt nuclear reactors located behind a berm one kilometre from the main settlement. The reactors not only provide constant electricity and heat through the two week nights and days of the Moon, they power a smelter which processes the lunar regolith into raw materials. The Moon's crust is about 40% oxygen, 20% silicon, 12% iron, and 8% aluminium. With abundant power, these elements can be separated and used to manufacture aluminium and iron for structures, glass from silicon and oxygen, and all with abundant left-over oxygen to breathe. There is no need for elaborate recycling of oxygen: there's always plenty more coming out of the smelter. Many denizens of Artemis subsist largely on “gunk”, an algae-based food grown locally in vats which is nutritious but unpalatable and monotonous. There are a variety of flavours, all of which are worse than the straight stuff.

Jazz works as a porter. She picks up things somewhere in the settlement and delivers them to their destinations using her personally-owned electric-powered cart. Despite the indigenous production of raw materials, many manufactured goods and substances are imported from Earth or factories in Earth orbit, and every time a cargo ship arrives, business is brisk for Jasmine and her fellow porters. Jazz is enterprising and creative, and has a lucrative business on the side: smuggling. Knowing the right people in the spaceport and how much to cut them in, she has a select clientele to which she provides luxury goods from Earth which aren't on the approved customs manifests.

For this, she is paid in “slugs”. No, not slimy molluscs, but “soft-landed grams”, credits which can be exchanged to pay KSC to deliver payload from Earth to Artemis. Slugs act as a currency, and can be privately exchanged among individuals' handheld computers much as Bitcoin today. Jazz makes around 12,000 slugs a month as a porter, and more, although variable, from her more entrepreneurial sideline.

One of her ultra-wealthy clients approaches her with a highly illegal, almost certainly unethical, and very likely perilous proposal. Surviving for as long as she has in her risky business has given Jazz a sense for where the edge is and the good sense not to step over it.

“I'm sorry but this isn't my thing. You'll have to find someone else.”

“I'll offer you a million slugs.”


Thus begins an adventure in which Jazz has to summon all of her formidable intellect, cunning, and resources, form expedient alliances with unlikely parties, solve a technological mystery, balance honour with being a outlaw, and discover the economic foundation of Artemis, which is nothing like it appears from the surface. All of this is set in a richly textured and believable world which we learn about as the story unfolds: Weir is a master of “show, don't tell”. And it isn't just a page-turning thriller (although that it most certainly is); it's also funny, and in the right places and amount.

This is where I'd usually mention technical goofs and quibbles. I'll not do that because I didn't find any. The only thing I'm not sure about is Artemis' using a pure oxygen atmosphere at 20% of Earth sea-level pressure. This works for short- and moderate-duration space missions, and was used in the U.S. Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. For exposure to pure oxygen longer than two weeks, a phenomenon called absorption atelectasis can develop, which is the collapse of the alveoli in the lungs due to complete absorption of the oxygen gas (see this NASA report [PDF]). The presence of a biologically inert gas such as nitrogen, helium, argon, or neon will keep the alveoli inflated and prevent this phenomenon. The U.S. Skylab missions used an atmosphere of 72% oxygen and 28% nitrogen to avoid this risk, and the Soviet Salyut and Mir space stations used a mix of nitrogen and oxygen with between 21% and 40% oxygen. The Space Shuttle and International Space Station use sea-level atmospheric pressure with 21% oxygen and the balance nitrogen. The effects of reduced pressure on the boiling point of water and the fire hazard of pure oxygen even at reduced pressure are accurately described, but I'm not sure the physiological effects of a pure oxygen atmosphere for long-term habitation have been worked through.

Nitpicking aside, this is a techno-thriller which is also an engaging human story, set in a perfectly plausible and believable future where not only the technology but the economics and social dynamics work. We may just be welcoming another grand master to the pantheon.

Posted at January 25, 2018 22:55