Once again, it’s time to compare three different spec fic novels and see which of their authors walks away with the coveted grand prize of Most Engaging, handed out by me, a guy with a website. Competing today are The Martian by Andy Weir, Artemis by Andy Weir, and Project Hail Mary by… Andy Weir. Oops, all Weirs! But honestly, who could blame me? The guy’s published three novels, and all of them lean heavily into hard scifi. They were just begging to have their ANTS scores compared on a scale from 1 to 10.
Spoiler Notice: Project Hail Mary
Astronaut Mark Watney is accidentally left for dead on Mars after a mission goes catastrophically wrong, oh no! Fortunately, he’s not actually dead, but he soon will be if he can’t figure out how to survive on the Red Planet, where he’ll have to wait years for rescue. Weir originally published this novel chapter by chapter on his website, and it proved so popular that a traditional publishing deal soon followed. This is incredibly rare and suggests there’s something special about the book. Whether that special quality is that it’s really good, you’ll have to wait and see.
Watney is a solid protagonist, which is good because we spend large sections of the book with only him around. His situation is highly sympathetic: stranded on Mars due to an unpredictable accident, he’s doomed to a slow death if he can’t figure out a solution. It also helps that he’s kind, repeatedly narrating that he doesn’t blame his crew for leaving him behind. Plus, he makes a lot of nerd jokes. That might not work for everyone, but nerds are this book’s target audience, so it’s a smart move.
The main issue with Watney is that he isn’t super deep. While he occasionally gets frustrated, his optimism and determination can be overpowering. But Weir has one more trick up his sleeve for characterization: epistolary narration. While epistolary stories have a lot of limitations, their big strength is helping readers get to know the protagonist, and, oh boy, do we get to know Mark Watney. We learn about his daydreams, the TV shows he likes, and why he took up botany in college. In other narration types, this information might feel forced or excessive, but it’s right at home in an epistolary story.
Unfortunately, Watney isn’t the only character. Instead, we spend a lot of the book following various NASA employees as they discuss Watney’s situation and work on a rescue mission. This is mostly plot-relevant info, but the characters themselves are just not compelling. It’s hard to care about NASA’s PR director not getting enough sleep when Watney is still stuck on Mars! Weir also switches from his lively and distinct epistolary style into a dry third-person omniscient, which further flattens the other characters.
It’s a little better when the story switches to Watney’s crewmates, as they’re at least still in space, and at one point they have to decide if they’ll risk their lives in a desperate rescue mission. That’s somewhat compelling, but still not nearly as compelling as the actual main character. I think someone in Hollywood must have agreed with me, because in the film adaptation, they give the mission commander a more in-depth arc about her guilt at leaving Watney behind.
While The Martian’s secondary characters aren’t the worst I’ve ever encountered, we spend a lot of time with them, and it drags attachment down. Watney is still great, but there are long stretches where we hear nothing from him.
Final Score: 6
Even when The Martian first came out in 2011, Mars didn’t seem particularly novel as a location. We knew quite a lot about the Red Planet, and new discoveries tended to be of more interest to specialists than the general public. The Curiosity rover’s big draw was that it had a delightful Twitter account, rather than the time it found evidence of persistent water in Mars’ ancient past. This isn’t to say Mars had become boring, but it had certainly reduced in novelty from the days when a translation error led to the widespread belief in canals on the planet’s surface. Likewise, NASA had been launching spacecraft for more than half a century by that point, so EVA suits and reaction thrusters had lost some of their wow factor. All of this is still true today, possibly even more so.
Weir blows past this obstacle by diving into the details of both the Martian environment and NASA’s technology. These details make the world feel real, and even better, they matter to the plot. Weir describes the steps needed to grow potatoes in Martian soil, which is important because Watney will starve without more food. He explains how dust storms reduce the efficiency of solar panels, making it harder for Watney to reach his evacuation site. Even navigation on Mars is cool and exciting, as Watney has to chart his position by Phobos’s passage overhead. Otherwise, he’ll never find the old Pathfinder mission and its precious radio.
This book even makes the most mundane technical details sound cool and interesting. Few readers find themselves craving a precise explanation of NASA’s preflight safety checks on the distribution of cargo mass in an uncrewed supply mission, but it sure as heck matters in this story. Without that knowledge, we can’t appreciate the urgency of NASA’s resupply mission, as they frantically work to send Watney the supplies he needs to survive. Is any of this information accurate? I have no idea, but it sounds accurate, and that’s enough for most readers.
The main drawback to The Martian’s novelty is that even under Weir’s expert hand, Mars does get repetitive eventually, especially when Watney goes on long drives across the surface. Oh boy, more red-tinged rocks, just like the last three chapters. Even so, the story’s aesthetics are striking and memorable.
Final Score: 8
Back in my first ANTS comparison post, I used The Martian as an example of a 10 in tension. In retrospect, that’s a bit surprising, as this book has two factors working against it. First, it’s a story of environmental danger, which tends to reduce the threat a hero faces. Mars can’t actively plan to thwart Watney like a sapient antagonist can. Second, this is an epistolary story, which means we always know Watney survives at least long enough to write his current log entry.
Despite those limitations, this book has some of the best tension I have ever encountered. The most obvious reason is that Weir establishes an urgent problem right away: running out of food. Thanks to some math, Watney knows exactly how many days of calories he has on hand, and how it absolutely won’t be enough. This limit provides the backbone of tension for most of the story.
From there, Weir adds complications and smaller conflicts to keep the story moving. In Mythcreants terminology, those are called child arcs! For example, to have a chance at rescue, Watney must make contact with NASA, but all his communication equipment is broken. He can salvage a replacement radio from the Pathfinder probe, but it’s really far away, so he has to modify a rover for long-distance travel.
These child arcs are punctuated by bigger problems, like equipment failures or natural disasters. When tension drops as Watney approaches his evac site, Weir ups the danger by catching the hero’s rover in a rockslide. When it looks like NASA will be able to send Watney plenty of food, their launch fails because of skipped safety checks. The tension is always high, but these tools allow Weir to modulate it so it’s a bit lower in certain sections, letting readers catch their breath.
The Martian even makes its epistolary format support the tension. Watney will describe some serious problem in a log entry, then say how he’ll try to fix it. This builds suspense over whether his solution will work. Will the solar collectors be fixed in the next log entry? Will there even be a next log entry? You have to keep reading to find out.
In complete fairness, there is one section where tension seriously drags. Somewhere around the middle, we have to read a flashback scene of the morning Watney was left behind on Mars. This scene tells us nothing we didn’t already know, and it takes us away from the actual story. But it’s quite short, and the tension around it is so good that most readers will barely notice.
Final Score: 10
The Martian’s ending is straightforward and well executed. After struggling to survive for over a year, Watney finally reaches the evacuation point, and NASA’s dangerous plan to rescue him goes into effect. There are a few last-minute complications to keep things tense, but mostly, this is the payoff for all Watney’s efforts.
That’s why it’s not a big deal that in the finale, most of the actions are taken by Watney’s crewmates rather than Watney himself. They have to figure out how to retrieve his ascent vehicle when it veers off course, which requires a lot of clever space ideas. Normally, shifting away from the protagonist like this would be unsatisfying. In The Martian, it works like a huge prior achievement turning point. Watney already put in all the work to survive; he deserves to be rescued for once.
This ties up the story’s throughline nicely. We started with the question of whether Mark Watney would survive, and now we know. Simple and effective. The biggest issue is that to make the climax work, Weir has to once again abandon his epistolary narration, falling back on the same omniscient narration from earlier. This is understandable, but it’s still not as fun to read as Watney’s log entries.
The other issue is that the ending is too abrupt. Epilogues are an important story component because they give audiences a chance to say goodbye and to see that any big changes have stuck. The Martian ends just as Watney is pulled aboard the rescue ship, which still has a long return journey ahead of it. Not only is that no time to say goodbye, we can’t even be sure that some new space disaster doesn’t befall him on the way home!
Thankfully, the movie adds a short epilogue of Watney teaching the next class of astronauts. The book’s ending is still great, but it’s a bit mean of Weir to leave us hanging like that.
Final Score: 8
From a man trying to get off Mars, we switch to a woman trying to stay on the moon. That woman is Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara, and she lives on Artemis, the first city on the moon. She does a bit of crime, you see, so there’s always a possibility of getting caught and sent back to Earth. This is Weir’s second novel, which means there’s a lot of pressure on it after The Martian’s breakout success. Pressure that the book can’t live up to, I’m afraid.
Jazz doesn’t start us off in a good place. Her initial motivation is money, and instead of using her extremely marketable welding skills to get that money, she does petty crime instead. Because she’s a free spirit who doesn’t want to follow in her father’s professional footsteps, you see. That’s incredibly difficult to sympathize with for anyone who’s ever actually had money problems. When she takes a job that risks damaging the city’s supply of oxygen, it’s hard to do anything but cheer against her. This aspect of her character does get better, but it’s a difficult hill to climb.
Making matters much worse is our old friend, sexism. Jazz is an Arab woman, and while the Arab part of that identity seems to be handled okay according to people who know much more about it than me, the woman part isn’t so fortunate. The main issue is that Jazz is described like an objectified love interest rather than a main character. Her first-person narration is jam-packed with references to how hot she is, how hot her outfit is, and how she’s sexually available but doesn’t have too much sex.
If Mark Watney were written this way, his log entries would be full of references to his soulful eyes, chiseled abs, and how well he fills out a pair of tight pants. It would be incredibly off-putting, and Jazz’s description is the same way. Jazz also loves to make cruel comments about sex workers, even after assuring us that she has no problem with them.
So what about the other characters? The most prominent is Svoboda, Jazz’s tech guy and out-of-nowhere love interest. I say out of nowhere, because the two of them have exactly zero chemistry beyond Svoboda occasionally doing something nice for Jazz. Svoboda is also a serious creep, making constant comments on Jazz’s body and appearance, which the book treats as endearing little whoopsies. When they get together, it’s little more than a Nice Guy stereotype being rewarded with a hot lady.
Then we have a few other side characters, most of whom would be fine if they would stop slutshaming Jazz for five seconds. Her dad is kind and insightful, occasionally struggling with the morality of committing crimes for the greater good. And he slutshames Jazz. She has a cool friend who helps her with EVA hijinks and who slutshames her. There’s a cop who Jazz has fun rivalry with… except when he’s slutshaming her. The list goes on.
Attachment’s only saving grace is Artemis itself. While the characters range from uncomfortable to gross, Weir does a really good job describing the city and its inhabitants. It feels like a real place where people live, work, and dream. And since most of those people are in the background, they don’t have any time to slutshame Jazz! By the end, you can at least cheer for Jazz to save the city, even if you don’t care about her or her friends.
Final Score: 3
Weir employs the same strategy in Artemis as he does in The Martian, and it works pretty well, for the most part. Artemis is full of little details that differentiate it from an Earth city, which keeps things new and fresh even though most of us have a pretty good idea of what the moon is.* Steps are much taller in Artemis because people can climb higher in the weak gravity. Flammable materials are strictly regulated to reduce the risk of fire, which is incredibly dangerous in a sealed environment. Lunar coffee tastes different because water boils at a much lower temperature. The list goes on!
Just like in The Martian, Weir makes sure that most of these details are tied into the plot, so they actually matter to the story. In particular, the city’s life-support system is central to the main conflict, so Weir has good justification to describe it in great detail. And since there are other people around, Weir can describe spacesuit combat! Short version: it’s incredibly dangerous. Do not get into fights while wearing a spacesuit.
The downside of having other people around is that Weir also strays into the realm of economics, where he isn’t nearly as strong. At one point, he explains how Jazz’s smuggling business outcompetes all the other smugglers because she… refuses to smuggle highly profitable items like guns and hard drugs. I don’t have her accounting data in front of me, but that seems questionable. We also have some throwaway lines about how great it is not to have unions, which was a hard sell even when the book was published in 2017.
Fortunately, these forays into financial theory are short lived, and the book still benefits from Weir’s scientific and engineering expertise. It would just be easier to enjoy those benefits if we didn’t have occasional dialogue about how SpaceX and Blue Origin shouldn’t have to pay taxes.
Final Score: 7
Early in the story, tension suffers for the same reason attachment does: I don’t care if Jazz succeeds in her mission. She’s being paid a bunch of money to sabotage the city’s life-support system so that her billionaire friend can swoop in and save everyone with his life-support system. The only tension comes from worrying that this obviously dangerous mission will result in everyone suffocating, and that’s more frustrating than anything else.
Fortunately, tension picks up later, when the real plot starts. A dangerous assassin is after Jazz, and she can’t go to the city’s one cop because he’s always had it out for her. It’s fun to watch Jazz outwit her pursuers and make plans to bust the assassin without getting herself caught too. Weir is also quite good at describing fight scenes, except for a weird habit of having Jazz narrate that she’s not good at fighting right before she does something that requires a lot of fighting skill.
Later, the stakes are raised from Jazz’s personal safety to protecting the entire city from evil villains who want to control it. The city has higher attachment than any of the characters, so threatening it is a great way to increase tension. Naturally, solving this problem requires all of the technical knowledge that Weir builds up in the early chapters.
Tension would be even higher, except the bad guys are extremely distant. I mean that literally. The villains who want to take over Artemis are an Earth-based crime syndicate called O Palácio, and they don’t make much of an impression. The characters talk about how dangerous and powerful they are, but they have very little presence in the story. We meet one assassin who works for them, and that’s it. This doesn’t completely destroy their threat level, but it’s a serious weakness.
Final Score: 6
In the climax, Jazz and her friends have to save the city from chloroform poisoning. Fortunately, Jazz figures out a way to flush the air and replace it before the unconscious citizens suffer permanent harm. This is a solid clever deduction turning point, with a hint of sacrifice, as Jazz has to spend a little bit of time in vacuum for it to work.
That would be great, except that the city isn’t being poisoned by O Palácio. The poisoning happens because something goes wrong with Jazz’s plan to stop O Palácio. Considering that the plan is to once again sabotage the city’s unfortunate life-support system, this time with a huge explosion, it’s hardly a surprise that something goes wrong. So Jazz is saving the city from her own terrible plan.
Weir tries to justify all this by explaining that without Jazz’s plan, O Palácio will be able to take over Artemis and turn it into a crime zone thanks to some complicated oxygen contracts they have with the city. To stop that, Jazz has to destroy O Palácio’s oxygen supply, so they’ll default on the contract and be unable to take over the city.
This also falls flat, because no matter how much law jargon Weir throws at us, it’s hard to believe there’s no legal way out of this problem. The city’s authorities are united in wanting to keep O Palácio from taking over Artemis, and it really seems like they should be able to figure something out. Especially since, in other scenes, Artemis is shown to have very few legal protections.
While Weir’s engineering solution is pretty satisfying, everything around it is not. If you can forget why Jazz has to get the city a backup supply of oxygen, you’ll do okay. Otherwise, you’ll probably be frustrated again.
Final Score: 5
In Weir’s third novel, a fellow named Ryland Grace wakes up to discover two things: First, he has a serious case of amnesia. Second, he’s the only surviving crew member on a spaceship. His mission? To save Earth from a fictional climate disaster, which is caused by weird space microbes dimming the sun. No pressure.
Grace is exceptionally similar to Watney; a wisecracking nerd overflowing with determination and kindness. This isn’t actually a problem, as there’s nothing wrong with reusing a character concept that worked well before. Grace is also a teacher, which is a little different than Watney, but the main distinction is that Grace actually has other characters he can talk to.
In the present, that means Rocky, an alien that Grace encounters on his mission. Rocky is a fantastic character, as earnest and friendly as he is clever. Kind of like a sapient golden retriever scientist, who is also made of rock. Did I mention he’s made of rock? His unique biology is also a great selling point, as it makes him much more memorable than us meat bags.
Finally, there’s Eva Stratt. She’s not on the ship, but we meet her in Grace’s flashbacks as he tries to remember what’s going on. Stratt is a public servant leading Earth’s response to the fictional climate crisis, and she is a spectacular example of wish fulfillment. She moves heaven and earth to address the problem, mobilizing all of the planet’s resources to her cause. She cuts through corporate interests and government recalcitrance. She’s on a mission to save humanity, and she’s ruthless in doing it. She’s the perfect character for anyone who’s ever shouted “DO SOMETHING” during a politician’s entirely inadequate speech about climate change.
Most of the side characters also pass muster, though none are particularly important compared to the big three. There is one couple whose dialogue is constantly about all the sex they’re having, which is a bit unpleasant, but it’s easily forgotten. The only real flaw in Hail Mary’s attachment is that Grace and Rocky’s personalities are so similar, they occasionally feel like the same person. Fortunately, one of them is made of rock, so it’s not a huge issue.
Final Score: 9
Hail Mary is significantly further into science fiction territory than Weir’s previous books, and it’s a successful experiment for him. He starts with more or less modern technology, then adds space microbes that can store and emit vast quantities of energy. These microbes are what’s dimming the sun, as they crowd around it for energy, but they can also be used as fuel for powerful space engines. These engines are what drives Grace’s ship to another solar system in search of a cure for the sun’s infection.
This is a great example of theming. Instead of introducing one explanation for the sun to dim, and a second explanation for the ship’s engines, Weir creates a single microbe to do both. In the flashbacks, we watch as Grace figures out how the microbes work, eventually naming them “astrophage.” That’s an amazing name, and I’m jealous I didn’t think of it first.
Rocky’s species and technology also provide a ton of novelty. His native environment will both burn humans alive and choke them with poisonous gas, while our environment is just as lethal to him, so it’s really interesting to watch as he and Grace figure out how to build a cohabitation space. It’s like any new roommate situation, except the line you draw on the floor is a horrible death.
That said, the novelty does take a few contrivance hits. To explain why Grace starts the book waking up from a coma to find his crewmates dead, Weir exposits about various studies showing a crew will inevitably turn on each other if kept in a confined space too long. This supposedly justifies the dangerous step of putting the crew in comas for their entire trip. As far as I can tell, the justification is simply untrue.* With proper preparation and training, astronauts can spend a super long time cooped up together without anyone getting stabbed.
Of course, science fiction breaks realism all the time, but when the book sells itself on rigorous attention to detail, this kind of inaccuracy damages immersion. On the bright side, this is all setup for the mission. Once Grace is actually in space, we don’t much care how he got there.
Final Score: 8
For most of the story, tension is excellent. At first, Grace has no idea what’s going on, only that he’s on a spaceship that he doesn’t know how to operate. That’s a good place to start, and it leaves plenty of room to grow.
And grow it does! Once Grace figures out what his mission is, the fate of Earth is at stake. To solve this overarching problem, Grace has to make contact with unknown aliens, figure out how to communicate with them, and then take his ship on an extremely dangerous maneuver to collect critical data. You might recognize this as a similar pattern to The Martian: establish an overarching problem, then create child arcs as you work toward solving it.
But that’s not all! In a twist that surprised even me, Hail Mary manages to have flashbacks that don’t reduce the tension. Mostly. These flashbacks occur as Grace gets his memories back, so it’s new information to him as well as the reader. This is where we see Grace initially work on the problem of why the sun is dimming, which is a pretty tense problem. Then he works on putting the space mission together, which is less tense since we know that works out, but seeing how is still interesting.
Eventually, the flashbacks do reach a point where they’re detracting from the tension. There’s a conflict over whether Grace will go on the mission, which he obviously will, and one scene where Stratt bullies a municipal court for no reason. But this is still leagues better than any other novel I’ve read that makes heavy use of flashbacks.
The main drop in tension comes later. There’s a climactic moment where Grace and Rocky almost die getting the cure, at which point the story should transition into falling action and epilogue. But it doesn’t. Instead, it putters along with a few lower-tension problems, making the whole section feel anticlimactic.
Final Score: 7
The good news is that the story’s throughline resolves, and not in a way that feels contrived. Both Earth and Rocky’s planet are saved, something Weir does an admirable job making us care about. Earth has some default attachment, of course, but the flashbacks with Stratt also help a lot. Watching the world come together can make even the most jaded misanthrope cheer for it to be saved. Meanwhile, we care about Rocky’s planet because we care about him, on account of him being just the best alien boy. We can’t let his people die out, because that would make Rocky sad!
The resolution is accomplished with Weir’s classic engineering flair. After doing a bunch of science, Grace and Rocky have to pilot their ship into the atmosphere of a nearby planet, since that’s the only place they can get one final ingredient. This nearly kills them, as, despite an advanced engine, their ship is only rated for zero atmospheres of pressure. Through quick thinking and courage, they escape danger and figure out a cure for their respective suns. Yay!
There’s even an epilogue! Due to a fuel shortage, Grace ends up returning to Rocky’s planet rather than Earth. He takes up teaching once again; only this time, his class is full of baby rock aliens. Very cute.
However, this is also where the main problem appears: there’s very little resolution on the Earth itself. With telescopes, Grace learns that the Earth’s sun is brightening again, so we know that they received the cure. But that’s it. There’s no update on how much damage was done in the meantime, or what happened to Stratt. That’s a particular sticking point, as in the final flashback, Stratt and Grace have a huge falling out. It really feels like there should have been a final meeting between them, either for reconciliation or for Grace to give her a piece of his mind.
Instead, we’re left with a conclusion that’s good rather than great. Though when so many novels forget that they have to resolve anything at all, that’s still a win in my estimation.
Final Score: 7
When we add up the ratings of our three contestants, we get 32 for The Martian, 22 for Artemis, and 31 for Project Hail Mary. Yep, that tracks. The Martian is one of the few books good enough for us to consistently use as a positive example.* Artemis isn’t a terrible book, but it’s a major step down. It depends much more heavily on its characters, and Weir just wasn’t as good at characters in 2017. Fortunately, he got much better by 2021, as Hail Mary has fantastic characters. Its ending is messier, probably because it has a much more complex premise, but it’s still great to see an author improve as they write more.
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