What the Martian writer gets right and wrong with his latest protagonist
As an Arab-American science fiction reader, I felt a mixture of excitement and apprehension upon hearing that Artemis, Andy Weir’s novel set on the Moon, would have a Saudi Arabian female heroine. Apprehension at the many ways to get such a character wrong, but excitement at the wealth of potential that could come from the idea of Arab women, too often constrained in fiction by present-day realities, living a different life in a near-future lunar colony.
Though it tries, Artemis does not realize that potential.
Before I focus on what went wrong, I want to give credit where credit is due. It would have been easy for Andy Weir to stay in his comfort zone and write another white, male character like Mark Watney, the jokey botanist MacGyver hero of the Martian. And in the end, Weir basically wrote that same character, who seems more and more like a stand-in for Weir’s dad-humor, but with a different place of birth and gender.
However, I would rather live in a world where writers like Weir attempt to tackle characters with different backgrounds from their own, even if they fail. When writers get it right, it means stories with richer worlds and voices. When they get it wrong, readers can analyze where they missed the mark.
Artemis’ heroine, Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara, moved to the moon at a young age with her Saudi Arabian father. An intelligent but underachieving smuggler, she drinks, swears, and has sex outside of marriage. Having grown up in Saudi Arabia with a mixed Arab and American heritage, I did appreciate seeing a more rebellious Arab woman who rejects some, but not all, elements of her upbringing. And it made sense in Artemis – on the diverse, pioneer setting of the Moon, the rules that would have constrained Jazz in Riyadh would not apply to the same degree.
In the age of choice validation and France’s head scarf ban, I get frustrated by the shyness of Western feminism in critiquing the purity-focused restrictions on women in the Middle East. Since some women “choose” the hijab, that apparently makes it empowering, ignoring the social pressures and belief systems that often drive that choice. But not all Arab women choose the traditions pushed upon them, and some actively resist it. For that reason, I always welcome female Arab characters that don’t fit the cookie-cutter image of the content, veiled woman, nor the one-dimensional victim of male dominance.
Despite these positives, however, it’s clear that Andy Weir, like many male writers before him, doesn’t know how to write women. I read an article before the book’s release in which Weir admitted that he found the idea of writing from a woman’s perspective intimidating, more so, apparently, than tackling story structure, pacing and the hard but accessible science that made The Martian a success story. He allegedly asked the women in his life for their feedback on writing from a feminine perspective. I don’t know if these female critique partners told him what they thought he wanted to hear or if he just didn’t process their input, but somehow, he ended up with Jazz Bashara.
As I alluded to before, Jazz has the same voice and adolescent sense of humor as Mark Watney. She describes the domed shapes of the lunar city as resembling “a set of boobs.” When a character asks about a package she’s carrying, she replies, “Porn. About your mom.” Her descriptions of herself are highly sexualized. “I undressed faster than a drunk prom date,” she narrates at one point. What woman describes herself that way, more less a woman raised in Saudi culture?
But Nadia! you may counter, I thought you wanted characters that don’t conform to the usual tropes and stereotypes. Why couldn’t a 26-year-old Saudi woman have the personality and sense of humor of a 14-year-old boy?
She could, but it doesn’t feel authentic or plausible the way this character was written. There are stereotypes, and there are realities in how we are socialized and how our experiences drive the way we interact with the world. Jazz treats the mostly male supporting characters the way a man would – she trades barbs and insults, with none of the usual caution or filtering that marks female socialization. She didn’t have to be a demure doormat. She could be tough and self-deprecating. But any type of female character is still shaped by the reality of the world we live in – the socialization women experience, the real risks of violence and being overpowered by men – and as a result, Jazz’s reactions and behavior are never entirely believable.
Issues with characterization aside, there are many elements of Artemis that still make it worth reading. The lunar city, with its diverse inhabitants and social structure, is a fascinating, fully realized setting. The details of an imagined life on the moon kept me engaged throughout a conventional heist-gone-wrong plot. But for his next novel, if Weir wants to uphold the good intentions of writing diverse characters, he needs a combination of thorough homework, better understanding of characterization, and learning how to write in a perspective other than his own. If he puts as much effort into understanding women of all backgrounds as he does with thinking through the mechanics of the scientific obstacles that his characters must solve, he’ll do fine.